Tag Archives: Olympic Games

What Is Game, Set And Match for Peng Shuai?

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.


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Love All

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.

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A Chinese Kick For Brazilian Sport

China knows how to build for and stage major international sporting events. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 was a success on both scores in anyone’s book. 2016 Olympics host, Rio de Janeiro, is to benefit from that expertise, as is football’s 2014 FIFA World Cup, also to be held in Brazil. Among the welter of bilateral agreements signed during Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s state visit to China this week is a cooperation and investment agreement for Chinese assistance at the two events.

Though details are scanty, FIFA will be relieved; it has been fretting that Brazil is running behind in developing the stadiums and other infrastructure for its tournament. A little Chinese civil engineering expertise should get the projects back on track. And for China, the goodwill that should generate with FIFA and a little up-close look at World Cup preparations shouldn’t go amiss as its own football association nurtures dreams of bidding for the World Cup in 2026.


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Harbin To Host Humanoid Robot Olympics

The sporting calendar is becoming crowded for humanoid robots. There is already not one but two football World Cups and a RoboGames. Now China is adding an Olympic games. Harbin will host these next June with more than 100 universities from 20 countries expected to send entrants in 16 events from athletics to the non-traditional Olympic event  of dancing (not on ice, we assume, but see below). The Harbin Institute of Technology has been chosen to hold the event because it already runs a renowned humanoid robot football team, China Daily says. Entry to the competition will be restricted to robots resembling humans. Two arms and legs are obligatory. No wheels. At least there will be no problems over the eligibility of athletes with artificial limbs or gender controversies.



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Not Playing Games In Beijing

China’s order to Beijing’s dirtiest gas stations just to close rather than add to the city’s air pollution is only the latest sign of the government’s determination to have the Olympics this summer run to order.

Nine oil depots in and around the capital and 144 gas stations too antiquated to be fitted with pollution minimizing nozzles will shut by the end of May. There are 1,442 gas stations in Beijing, Xinhua reports with its usual scrupulous attention to statistical detail, so the closure will affect one in 10. The stations and depots affected are mostly owned by Sinopec and China National Petroleum Corp.

Beijing’s poor air quality has been one of the biggest concerns for the Games’ organizers. The British Olympic Association said on Thursday it was considering supplying its athletes with masks at the Olympics to counter pollution. Last year, International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge warned that some events could be postponed if the air pollution was too severe.

There is no way that is going to be allowed to happen. Beijing has begun shutting down blast furnaces at the iconic Beijing Capital Iron & Steel Group — the city’s biggest steel company and one of its worst polluters, and which is being moved to new mills being built on the coast 220 kms away. All construction work in the city is due to cease in May. Many cars will be ordered off the roads during the Games, and thousands of temporary residents will be given holidays to return home to cut congestion further.

Beijing then will probably seem as still as the grey pall that usually hangs over it on humid August days.

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