OUR MAN AMONG the muddied oafs tells us that China continues strictly to enforce the non-politicisation of sport. Chinese broadcasters reportedly intend to take English Premier League football matches off the air this weekend because of the English clubs’ planned shows of support for Ukraine.
The BBC says that team captains will wear armbands in Ukraine’s colours of blue and yellow. Stadium screens will display ‘Football Stands Together’ in front of the country’s flag. Similar shows of opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine have been made at matches played over the past week. FIFA, the sport’s world governing body, has suspended the Russian national team and clubs from its competitions.
This follows the International Paralympic Committee’s banning of Russian and Belarusian athletes from the 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympics, which President Xi Jinping opened today in the Bird’s Nest stadium without mentioning absentees.
THE 2022 BEIJING Winter Olympic Games have concluded. From the Party’s point of view, it will be seen as a winner.
The giant ‘closed loop’ that kept Games in a bubble successfully contained the Covid virus and will be taken as a vindication of the zero-tolerance policy. The US-led diplomatic boycott of the Games by a handful of countries turned out to be an irrelevance. No international corporate sponsor broke ranks. Nor did any athlete speak out, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was compliant with the Alice Through The Looking Glass notion that international sport is not politicised. Human rights fizzled out as an issue.
China improved its medal count to 15 from nine at the previous games, and, more lustrously, nine were gold versus one last lime. Nine golds were also one more than the United States achieved, even if the US team won 10 more medals overall.
National pride was stoked. The games had an audience of 600 million on state TV and were enthusiastically received. US-born Snow Princess Gu Ailing, who won two golds and a silver, became a national icon and the happy face of the Games, seemingly seen everywhere on state TV, advertising billboards and magazine covers. Her mother, Gu Yan, has become a parenting role model on Weibo. Move over, Tiger Mom.
The sad face of the games was that of the Russian skater Kamila Valieva, caught up in a doping scandal that deflected the spotlight of adversity from China as the Games headed for their conclusion. At least internationally; state media did not give Valieva’s case much prominence.
The tough-love treatment of the 15-year old by her coach after failing in one of her events to win an expected gold medal also confirmed these as the Joyless Games in the eyes of many outside China.
The athletes, too, found the strict isolation of life in the Games’ bubble with its relentless Covid testing regime stressful, those put into quarantine after testing positive especially so. This was even less reported by state media than Valieva, which instead shared on social media only positive comments by athletes such as praise for the friendliness of the Games’ volunteers.
None of those complaints will much concern Beijing, for whom these Games were an exercise in soft power projection — as are all Olympics for their hosts, it should be said. As this Bystander noted previously, whereas the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing celebrated China’s coming out in the world, these Winter Games were about reinforcing that this is Xi’s moment.
Domestically, it will have reaffirmed the Party’s leadership competence, especially the centrality of President Xi Jinping, and presented a glowing picture of China’s presence on a world stage on China’s terms. The success of these Games is an important milestone for Xi on the road to the Party Congress later this year.
Internationally, the Beijing Winter Olympics will have sent the same message as to the domestic audience. However, it will be read differently; China is a rising power that will pursue its path regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.
THE BEIJING WINTER OLYMPICS is throwing a sideways spotlight on national identity. It is focused on Gu Ailing (above), the 18-year old Calfornia-born skier who has won a gold medal competing for China.
The issues it raises are complex. They concern the binariness of national identity, the intertwining of ethnicity and nationality as a basis for state, and state use of sport and athletes to project national power.
Gu was born, raised and still lives in the United States, where she goes by the given name Eileen. Her father is American; her mother is Chinese. Gu Yan came to the United States as a post-graduate biochemistry student and subsequently pursued a career there in finance. Her daughter switched her sporting affiliation from the United States to the country of her mother’s birth, at 15 years old by when she was already a rising star in US skiing.
Gu Ailing is far from unique among athletes in choosing to represent a country other than that of their birth. Elite sport finds it convenient to take a multigenerational view of nationality; eligibility can be derived from grandparents. Many of the Senegalese football team that recently won the Africa Cup of Nations, for example, were born in France, not Senegal, although they have family roots there.
Our man on the slopes tells us that Gu is among around a dozen foreign-born Chinese Winter Olympics team members, including US-born figure skaters (Beverly) Zhu Yi and (Ashley) Lin Shan, and at least five US-born ice hockey team members.
Gu’s nationality has been a matter of some speculation. As the daughter of a Chinese mother born in China, Gu would be a Chinese citizen regardless of where she was born. That she was born in San Francisco would also make her a US citizen.
The International Olympic Committee requires athletes to be nationals of the countries they represent and has said that Gu ‘acquired Chinese nationality in 2019’, and submitted a copy of her passport to it that year in connection with her change of affiliation.
The United States recognises dual nationality. China, however, does not, although not recognising it and turning a blind eye to it if needs be, are different matters.
Gu has been evasive about whether she has renounced her US citizenship. Instead, she portrays herself as a bi-national. She has repeated the line that ‘when I’m in the US, I’m American, but when I’m in China, I’m Chinese’ that she used at the 2020 Youth Winter Olympics in Lausanne, her first major competition in her new national colours.
That sentiment may strike a chord among many other biracial children and the sons and daughters of first-generation immigrants who find themselves shuttling between two heritages. However, most of those people will not be high-profile individuals. Gu is a model and a paid ‘face’ for several international brands, as well as an Olympian who chose to switch her affiliation to a nation the land of her birth considers a geopolitical rival.
There are plenty of reasons for Gu to have opted to represent China. There is strong cultural affinity: she was raised by the maternal side of her family (her grandmother was an engineer with the Ministry of Transport), speaks accentless Mandarin and spent time in China every year as a child. There may be commercial considerations: she also has multi-million dollar brand endorsements in China, where she is lauded as the country’s ‘Snow Princess’; at 18, she may be laying a long-term geopolitical and macroeconomic bet on the future.
One reason that can be ruled out is that it gave her an easier shot at getting to the Beijing Games. She is world-class in her sport, as her gold medal testifies, and would walk into any country’s Winter Olympics team.
She has said that her motivation is that she has a greater opportunity to be a role model to young skiers in China, where winter sports are just taking off, than in the United States. Winter sports are popular recreationally there, but professionally, they only really get their place in the sun once every four years when the Winter Olympics come round.
Gu is accomplished, self-assured and a person who wants to leave her mark on the world. Yet, going from US athlete to Chinese athlete is a path less skied, especially when US-China relations are cutting up rough. Gu has been vilified on US social media for her choice, although that can be a dark place at the best of times everywhere. Zhu Yi was vilified on Weibo for her error-ridden performances.
There is also no escaping that sport and politics are bedfellows whether the athletes like it or not or whether they choose to use their sporting celebrity as a political platform. Just as the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing were used by authorities to promote China’s arrival in the world, these Games are being used to promote the idea that this is the moment for President Xi Jinping and his vision of the new China revitalised.
Gu has been impressive in appearing to remain apolitical during the Games. Her deft deflections of questions about her citizenship were matched by that of a question about the presence of tennis star Peng Shuai — that she’s ‘grateful that [Peng] is happy and healthy and out here doing her thing again’.
While not an overtly political comment that would have opened her to criticism in one or other of her homelands, her answer was no less political than her decision to give her first post-gold medal-winning interview to the newspaper of the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection, the top anti-corruption agency.
The question is how sustainable will her stance be, especially once she is back in the United States. There is no indication that Gu will move her domicile to China. In the autumn, she will attend Stanford University, one of her mother’s almae matres (Gu Yan is also a graduate of Peking University).
Outside the Olympic bubble, it is a different world. It is also an increasingly nationalist one in which US attitudes towards China are hardening and vice versa. She will, for example, be pressed in the United States to explain why she endorses the sports apparel brand Anta, which is open in its use of cotton from Xinjiang, a region from which the United States now bans imports, citing human rights abuses.
Whether she likes it or not and no matter how much she dissembles about it, her sporting success for China has made her a prominent Chinese public figure.
Given the current reduction of personal contacts between China and the West at all levels, anyone who can bridge the two should be welcomed. After winning her gold medal, Gu said, ‘I definitely feel as though I’m just as American as I am Chinese … Both [countries] continue to be supportive of me because they understand my mission is to use sport as a force for unity.’
This Bystander hopes that she is not being Pollyannaish, especially given China’s ‘whole of society’ approach to countering foreign adversaries. The narrative of China as a force for global unity and the non-politicisation of sport is one that Beijing is currently advancing. State media has reported Gu’s comments about being Chinese in China but American in the United States yet still identifying her as ‘of China’.
However, China also strongly advances the primacy of the Chinese model of everything from governance to sovereignty and the rules of the international order.
Should the political imperative for the narrative that Gu currently embodies change, that nuanced distinction will be less useful to a country in which ethnic, national, state and Party identity are closely intertwined, and nationalism is rising. Divided loyalty might then become untenable and equal identity along with it for as long as there are nation states.
THE ENDGAME OF the Peng Shaui affair is slowly playing out.
China’s tennis star has again denied that she was sexually assaulted three years ago by former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, this time to the French sports newspaper, L’Equipe.
It was her first interview with non-Chinese state media since she made the explosive accusation against Zhang, with whom she has admitted having an on-off relationship for more than a decade.
Her 1,500-character Weibo post on November 2 was deleted within 30 minutes of going up, and the censors disappeared Peng’s online presence. She also dropped from public view, inducing international concern from fellow tennis professionals and the Women’s Tennis Association.
L’Equipe’s interview was conducted under the watchful eye of the Chinese Olympic Committee (COC) on the 16th floor of the luxury Beijing hotel that the committee is using as its headquarters for the Beijing Winter Olympics. The newspaper was required to pre-submit its questions to the COC and agree to print Peng’s answers without commentary.
Peng showed up wearing a tracksuit top of the Chinese Olympic ice hockey team and spoke in Chinese (although she has used English at tennis event press conferences in the past). Her answers were translated into English by the COC official who accompanied her, although it seems that L’Equipe had a translator in Paris listening in.
The interview lasted for almost twice its allotted 30 minutes. L’Equipe says it was not prevented from asking questions it had not submitted.
The published transcript shows Peng giving terse and often repetitive answers to any question about the case. The newspaper says she appeared tense at the start of the interview, crossing her arms across her chest and reverting to that posture whenever asked about her post and subsequent treatment.
A PR professional would have praised her for ‘staying on message’, getting her talking points out, and avoiding direct answers to the most awkward questions, including about the role of authorities.
So what can be read between these very few lines?
To this Bystander, the critical point is her twice repeated assertion that no sexual assault had occurred.
Authorities can now claim there is nothing to investigate. An enquiry into an alleged sexual assault by a former senior official would be complicated for a socially conservative and somewhat prudish top leadership. Senior party cadres are not supposed to have extra-marital affairs. Making a public example of Zhang would be doubly tricky. Although retired from public politics since 2018, he was in the Xi orbit.
There was never any intention of pursuing such an investigation. Nor to give any oxygen to China’s fledgling #MeToo movement, which the leadership has sought to suppress, as it does with all identity politics.
Peng professed that there had been a ‘huge misunderstanding’ over her post, claimed she had never said she had been sexually assaulted and that she did not want the post ‘twisted’ anymore or any more media hype around it.
However, she did not explain to L’Equipe what that misunderstanding was or why the original post had explicitly stated that she had been forced into having sex with Zhang. L’Equipe’s questioning did not pursue the point.
Similarly, there was no follow-up when Peng responded to a question about why the post was deleted within 30 minutes with, ‘Because I wanted to’. Her statement that she deleted the post was also at odds with what she hinted in her first post-disappearance email: malicious actors had posted it, not her.
Peng also reasserted that she had not disappeared. She was, she said, in touch with close friends but had had too many international messages and emails to reply to them.
Her other answer that caught this Bystander’s attention for its resonance with the party line was:
My love life problems, my personal life must not be mingled with sports and politics. And sports must not be politicised.
Peng indicated that she would retire from competitive professional tennis. At 36 and with failing knees, she would probably be coming to the end of her career as an elite player. Yet the timing is convenient on many fronts. She will not be touring the world and at risk of endless questions about the case. Instead, she can return to public circulation within China, where she is an iconic figure, as a loyal if chastened domestic ambassador for Chinese sport.
There is scant internal political cost to authorities to that; her allegations and the international campaign for their investigation have been censored from China’s public discourse.
Externally, authorities will ride out the continuing scepticism about her repudiations but rely on time to fade the event from memory and concern from front of mind.
THE WINTER OLYMPICS in Beijing, which formally open on February 4, may turn out well for China, but less so for the city itself, at least in the short term.
Covid-19 precautions have prevented the influx of spectators that usually provide host cities with a tourism and spending boost and some burnishing of their reputation as a destination city.
The customary shutting down of nearby industrial plants such as steel mills to ensure blue skies for the duration of the games will reduce output and construction. The closures for these Games have been more widespread than for the 2008 Summer Olympics because the two satellite venues, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, which is over the border in neighbouring Hebei, are so far from the city centre.
Beijing is dealing with outbreaks of the Delta and Omicron variants of Covid-19. The 96 cases recorded since mid-January are a trifling number by international standards but not by China’s. It is the city’s highest number of cases since June and July 2020.
Additional control measures introduced in recent days will further dampen activity in the city. With the Games running to February 20, followed by the Winter Paralympics and the annual national legislative sessions in March, the restrictions are likely to remain in place for some time.
Authorities would not want an embarrassing failure of their ‘zero-tolerance’ policy towards the virus during the games.
This has already forced the participating athletes to be contained within a tightly sealed Games’ bubble, and the ban on spectators save for a small, hand-selected few, including fewer world leaders than Beijing would have liked given the US-led diplomatic boycott over Xinjiang.
In the long-term, the city will benefit from the construction and transport links already completed for the games, especially if it enables Beijing to develop a winter sports industry in Yanqing and Zhangjiakou once the pandemic has passed.
Creating a national winter sports industry is an official goal despite a lack of tradition in snow sports, but one in which the milestones are being dutifully hit ahead of the showpiece Games.
The officially reported total costs for the Games are $3.9 billion, well above the $1.6 billion estimated for operational costs when awarded in 2014. However, that is par for the course for any Olympics.
However, it is unlikely the Games will be as financially austere as portrayed. Some estimates have put the cost at ten times the official number once all the transport and infrastructure costs are added, including capital improvements to some of the venues used for the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. For comparison, the actual cost of the Sochi Winter Olympics is estimated at $60 billion in 2022 dollars.
There is nothing unique about an Olympics being portrayed as cheaper to stage than they genuinely cost. However, putting on this edition of the Games successfully and cheaply in the middle of a global pandemic is intended as both a vindication of the zero-tolerance policy and a projection of global power.
Also likely to be quietly ignored in the razzmatazz is the production of artificial snow. The Beijing Winter Olympics will be the first to rely almost entirely on fake snow in the absence of the real thing.
This has also raised environmental questions as the Games will need to draw more than 220 million litres of water to generate it from a region that is already suffering from increasing aridity.
How much of the final bill will be picked up centrally, and how much by the city is not publically known.
Significant contributions by private companies will offset part of the costs. There are 45 local sponsors of the Games, in addition to the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s 14 international sponsors, all hoping to dodge reputational risks from human rights issues. Many have been untypically quiet promotionally ahead of the games, at least internationally; their Olympic-themed advertising campaigns have been in full swing in China.
The IOC itself will make its customary contribution to the Games’ operating budget, in this case, $880 million. Like its international sponsors, it is distancing itself from human rights issues, although it may virtue signal via a public if controlled meeting with the unaccountably low-profile tennis star Peng Shuai. Unlike the following two sets of Games in Paris and Milan, the IOC did not require the host city for the Beijing Olympics to sign a human rights agreement.
Beijing is a $630 trillion economy. Visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin might like to reflect on the fact that three Beijing’s would be a more significant economic entity than the entire Russian economy.
A few billion dollars here or there to support the Games will not break Beijing economically, even if there is an opportunity cost to losing any stimulus effect from the Games, and, as with all Olympics, the legacy value of the construction undertaken will be fuzzy. Further, the city would probably have had to foot much of the additional costs of containing the latest Covid surges.
OUR MAN AMONG the muddied oafs sends word that China is banning its footballers from having tattoos, another sign of the expanding imposition of a state-directed morality to crack down on alternative cultures.
Tattoos have gained popularity with footballers and young people worldwide, including in China of late, belying their stigmatised associations with individuals and groups on the margins of society. Older Chinese associate them with the criminal underworld, prisoners, slaves, concubines and ethnic minorities.
They have long met with Party disapproval. Mao outlawed tattoos. Even today, tattoo shops operate in a grey area between legality and illegality. They scarcely seem to fit with Xi Jinping Thought on developing citizens ‘with an all-round moral, intellectual, physical and aesthetic grounding’.
The General Administration of Sport of China (GASC) has now ordered footballers who sport them to remove or cover them up to set a ‘good example for society’.
Players with tattoos will not be selected for China’s national and age-group teams. The GASC directive said that national teams should strengthen athletes’ ‘patriotic education’ to enhance the teams’ ‘mission, responsibility and honour’.
Many Chinese footballers have already taken to wearing long-sleeved shirts to cover their tattoos.
A year ago, a women’s university football match was called off with the organising authorities telling players that any who had tattoos or dyed hair would be banned.
Football follows television’s censure of actors with tattoos since 2018’s crackdown by the media watchdog on what is deemed unhealthy content and immoral culture. That has led to on-screen images of tattooed actors and athletes being blurred. Albania’s Eurovision entry was cut from the Chinese broadcast one year because the singer had extensive tattoos.
As younger Chinese have started to adopt tattoo culture recently, they have shown a preference for Western symbols, another reason for authorities to repress inking in the drive to build a narrative of Chinese exceptionalism around historical Chinese culture. Conversely, Chinese literature, myths and calligraphy often inspire Western body ink.
THE ‘RESOLUTE COUNTERMEASURES’ that Bejing promised to take against the now-announced diplomatic boycott of the Bejing Winter Olympic games by the United States may be just to ignore it.
On Monday, the Biden administration announced that US diplomats would not attend the Games, to be held in February, because of its concerns about China’s human rights record.
US athletes will be free to participate.
Beijing has already banned foreign spectators on public health grounds. The Omicron variant of COVID-19 will create complications in managing the Games and provide convenient cover for any further restrictions if determined politically necessary.
There will be little blowback in the United States for the administration’s decision. Supporting Beijing by attending the Games would be unpopular. If anything, criticism in the United States has been of the administration not imposing a complete boycott.
Similarly, any tit for tat snubs by China will do the administration no harm domestically. It is anyway unlikely that Beijing would ban athletes from boycotting countries.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, responding to a question about the potential for a US diplomatic boycott, trotted out the standard line about not politicising sport, adding that ‘no one cared‘ if US politicians, who were not being invited anyway, came or not. (Technically, invitations to attend the games come from the International Olympic Committee, not the host nation, but we will let that pass.)
The question is whether other Western governments will follow Washington’s lead and downgrade or scrap their official attendance. The United Kingdom and Australia would be the most likely candidates.
A more acid test of US sentiment will be if the extent to which the Games are watched in the United States and whether US multinationals scale back their commercial support for the games, either directly on via advertising and sponsorship of US coverage.
A straw in the wind: in its online news report of the diplomatic boycott, NBC, the US broadcaster with the rights to the Games, embedded a link on how to ‘Watch all the action from the Beijing Olympics live on NBC‘.
Update: Australia says it will join the diplomatic boycott. New Zealand says it will not be sending an official delegation for Covid-19 reasons. France says Europe will respond at an EU level, adding that the EU already sanctions China over Xinjiang. The United Kingdom is sitting on the fence.
Update to the update: The United Kingdom and Canada have now joined the diplomatic boycott.
IT IS BARELY 60 days until the ‘simple, safe and splendid’ Winter Olympic Games that President Xi Jinping promised eight months ago are due to open in Beijing under the totally apolitical slogan of ‘Together for a Shared Future’.
Despite the advent of the Omicron Covid-19 variant, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, neatly picking up on the alliteration, said today that he expected the Winter Olympics would be held ‘smoothly and on schedule’.
The games were always going to be staged in a bubble, with China’s borders effectively closed to international visitors as part of Covid-19 countermeasures. The restrictions were going to be eased only for athletes and team officials to participate in the games. From January 23, they must enter what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) calls ‘a closed-loop management system’ that confines them to Games-related venues and accommodation and only allows movement on a Games-dedicated transport system.
No foreign spectators were ever going to be allowed, only Chinese residents. The new variant may cause a reassessment of that. Yet, the country’s strict containment protocols will more likely permit it to fill the stands with vaccinated and patriotically cheering fans. They will provide the backdrop of spectators and atmosphere for the world’s TV cameras, through which most of the world watches Winter Olympics — and off whose broadcast rights revenues the IOC feasts royally.
Nor with domestic spectators only will there be any danger of crowd protests or #WhereIsPengShuai signs being waved for the cameras to linger on.
Beijing is managing to slowly let the air out of that particular balloon, even if the United States and other Western nations are still weighing a diplomatic boycott of the Games as a signal of its concern about human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
A diplomatic boycott would mean the United States and other participating nations would not send delegations of government officials to attend the games. That will be an empty gesture if Omicron means no government delegations at all.
Update: The Women’s Tennis Association announced on December 1 that it was suspending tournaments in mainland China and Hong Kong in 2022 because of the Peng Shuai case.
THE INTERNATIONAL CONCERN about the fete of tennis star Peng Shuai shows little sign of abating.
An announcement by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that its president Thomas Bach, the chair of its Athletes’ Commission, Emma Terho, and the IOC Member in China, Li Lingwei, had had a 30-minute video call with Peng on Sunday in which she said she was safe and well at home but would like ‘to have her privacy respected at this time’ has been met with further questions.
The IOC has not made the recording of the call available. There is no indication of whether Bach addressed the critical question of the allegation at the centre of the case, that Peng had said she had been sexually assaulted three years ago by former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli.
With the Winter Olympics due to start in Beijing in February, and the possibility of a Western diplomatic boycott in the wind, the IOC would have little interest in rocking the boat, even in the unlikely event it had any desire to.
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which has from the outset called for a full investigation of the allegations and threatened to withdraw its tournaments from China, said the call between Peng and the IOC did not address whether Peng was free to speak without coercion or censorship.
It raised the same concerns after two other videos were posted to the Twitter accounts of state media. Both purport to show Peng, in a Beijing restaurant and at a tennis event for teenagers, over the weekend. There is even greater scepticism over an email in which Peng says she did not make the allegation contained in a lengthy post to her Weibo account on November 2.
Peng’s international celebrity and international tennis stars’ reaction complicate Beijing’s handling of the case.
The standard playbook for regime critics is disappearance from public view and rectification during anything that can range from being confined to quarters to detention in a black jail until sufficient time has passed for a contrite reappearance in public or court. If the latter, prison or death invariably follow.
The playbook does not fully apply to Peng’s case. She is not a regime critic but has alleged sexual assault by a former senior official. That is doubly complicated for a socially conservative and somewhat prudish top leadership. Senior party cadres are not supposed to have extra-marital affairs; such allocations are often included on the charge sheet in anti-corruption cases against officials.
Zhang, at 75, is retired from office in 2018 and has withdrawn from public politics, old school, but was in the Xi orbit. That makes throwing him under the bus difficult, in the unlikely event top leadership would want to. It will have no intent to give any oxygen to China’s fledgling #MeToo movement, which it has sought to suppress, as it does with all identity politics.
Nor is the case of other internationally renowned figures like Jack Ma strictly analogous. Ma, too, dropped out of sight after criticising financial regulators for standing in the way of innovation and for generally getting too big for his boots just at a time when the official mood was swinging against tech moguls.
However, while international concern was expressed initially, high-profile US and European chief executives were not calling for a full accounting of his circumstances in the way US and European tennis stars are for Peng. Nor were US and European business associations threatening to pull out of China.
Tennis players do not have the business operations in China to be retaliated against that multinational corporations do. Nor do they, or an organiser of tournaments such as the WTA, have the scale of sponsorship, merchandising and broadcasting revenues at risk of a team sport with leagues like football or basketball.
To this Bystander, there were echoes of Ma’s first ‘reappearance video’ –the subdued tone and lack of emotion in his speech — in the first video of Peng posted after her initial disappearance. However, she had to travel no farther than a Beijing restaurant, unlike Ma, who was driven hours into the countryside to a remote rural school to reflect for the cameras that it was time to devote himself to education and public welfare.
Ma has accepted he has to lay low. The scuttling of his blockbuster Ant Group IPO was signal punishment and indication of what could happen to the rest of his fortune if he did not.
Ma was also coming towards the end of his business career. Peng is not nor in Ma’s league of wealth or global influence. She could return, chastened, to public circulation with little internal political cost; her allegations and the international campaign for their investigation have been censored from China’s public discourse.
Assuming her allegations will not be dealt with substantively, making them go away outside China is challenging but not impossible. It would be incredible if Peng repudiated them herself. More likely is the emergence of a narrative of a hacking of her Weibo account by a malicious actor (as the first post-disappearance email that she allegedly sent hinted). Authorities would ride out the initial scepticism and then rely on time to fade the event from memory.
Peng would have to go along with this, but it would be a relatively small cost for her to pay compared to the alternatives.
This Bystander suspects the wily perpetrator will never be brought to book but the finger of blame will point abroad.
Update: The wolves are finally stirring. After days of brushing aside questions about Peng, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Tuesday:.
I think some people should stop deliberately and maliciously hyping [the issue] up, let alone politicise this issue.
EARLIER THIS MONTH, the tennis star Peng Shuai posted on her Weibo account an accusation that three years ago she had been sexually assaulted by former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, a man with whom she had had an on-off relationship for more than a decade.
Her 1,500-character post quickly disappeared, as, seemingly, did Peng.
Questions were raised by prominent figures in world tennis about Peng’s silence, whereabouts and safety.
Now China Global Television News, the international subsidiary of state-broadcaster CCTV, has posted on social media a screenshot of an email sent purportedly by Peng to Steve Simon, head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which says in effect, it is all fake news; that the accusation is not true, that she never made it, and that she is just resting at home.
Simon does not believe a word of it. In a statement released by the WTA, he said:
The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.
I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her. Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government. The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe. I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail.
Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source. Her allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship.
The voices of women need to be heard and respected, not censored nor dictated to.
The WTA’s strong stance stands in contrast to the United States’ National Basketball Association and England’s Premier League, which put their commercial interests first when their officials or players spoke out about abuses in China to the displeasure of authorities.
Before the Covid-19 disruption, the WTA staged some ten tournaments a year in China and has significant Chinese corporate sponsors. That is hard cash on the line in publically challenging China’s version of events. However, sexual assault is a less abstract issue to its domestic audience than the Hong Kong and Xinjiang issues that embroiled the NBA and Premier League. The WTA’s reputational calculation may look a lot different.
The commercial calculus for teams/leagues sports like basketball and football is different from those for an individual/tournament sport like tennis.
There is much to all this that looks familiar: the dropping out of sight; the censorious sweeping clean of social media and online searches of all mentions; the confession or repudiation fabricated or written under duress along with a profession that all is well and it is a case of those wishing ill to China making mischief.
Yet other factors muddy the well-thumbed playbook. The protagonists are both unusually prominent. Zhang is not an official who might have been expected to have a mistress half his age, but a high-ranking figure in the Party, albeit at 75, retired from office sine 2018 and dutifully out of the public spotlight. Peng is an iconic sports personality inside China and well known outside it, not a flibbertigibbet entertainer who is only a star in China, which makes her more challenging to marginalise.
Her accusation is also the first against a high-ranking political figure since the #MeToo movement took hold in China in 2018. That alone makes it categorically different from similar accusations against men in the non-profit world, academia and media,
Although it has struggled against a hostile official environment and the suppression of any form of identity politics, the #MeToo movement has touched a sufficiently raw nerve that Peng’s accusations cannot simply be silently airbrushed out of history. Nor can the movement be credibly portrayed as a foreign influence designed to constrain China’s development.
Furthermore, if a case officer in the propaganda department has misread the #MeToo movement in the United States as a further sign of US decline rather than the pivotal force that can not be ignored by US commercial entities it has become, that may prove a costly mistake.
A third complication is that China will hold the Winter Olympic Games in February. There is already talk within some Western democracies of boycotting it to protest against Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and Peng’s situation could bolster that case. The International Olympic Committee’s statement today that it is encouraged by assurances that Peng is safe is unlikely to be taken at face value by many.
This leaves authorities in a quandary. A sign of this may be that in the foreign ministry’s regular daily briefing, spokesman Zhao Lijian distanced official China from the affair, saying that it is not a foreign affairs matter and he was ‘not aware’ of Peng’s situation.
There is no official Chinese version of events yet, and the censors’ swift initial work means the story does not exist inside China. CGTV’s posting of a screenshot of the email does not change that as it used Twitter, which is blocked in China. The intended audience was abroad. probably backed by a hope that the disinformation amplification chambers of Western social media would lend it credibility.
That has not happened, but it still leaves plenty of room for official deniability of a misinformation campaign. Yet, the embarrassing silence will have to be broken at some point, once the propaganda department has worked out how.