Tag Archives: Peng Shuai

Peng Shuai: Not So Black And White But Red All Over

Front page of French sports newspaper L'Equipe with its February 2022 interview with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai.

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.

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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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