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.