On Nov. 2, Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai (彭帥) posted a message on Chinese microblogging site Weibo accusing former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli (張高麗) of sexual abuse. A public allegation of sexual misconduct against a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) inner quorum is unprecedented in China. Surprisingly, Peng’s message was not immediately removed by China’s ruthlessly efficient censorship machine, leaving some to speculate that Peng might have been used by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) to purge Zhang, who is believed to be a member of a rival political faction headed by former Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民).
If Peng was manipulated by the Xi faction, then she was unceremoniously dumped once she was no longer of use. Peng’s online presence has been comprehensively scrubbed from Internet sites inside China. “Unpersoned” and shoved down the memory hole, it was an unambiguous message to others who might be considering making similar allegations against high-ranking party members. More than 20 days after the allegation was made, Peng has not been seen in public — save for an unconvincing “proof of life” video filmed at a restaurant and a stage-managed appearance at a Beijing tennis competition — and is believed to be under house arrest.
It is a depressingly familiar state of affairs in today’s totalitarian China, which makes the international reaction to Peng’s case so incongruous.
The tennis world has erupted in paroxysms of outrage over Peng’s disappearance, with high-profile players and governing bodies clutching their pearls in horror and calling for her release.
Whether their expressed shock is synthetic or genuine cannot be known for sure. What cannot be denied is that prior to Peng’s disappearance, players and sporting bodies seemed perfectly happy to engage with the lucrative Chinese market, despite a well-documented genocide in Xinjiang, ongoing persecution of Tibetans and Mongolians, and the destruction of Hong Kong’s autonomy.
One would have to be living under a rock not to notice the relentless purges of Chinese celebrities, actors, intellectuals and lawyers in the past few years. The absurd situation is reminiscent of the mock indignation expressed by Captain Louis Renault in the film Casablanca: I’m shocked, shocked, to find that human rights abuses are going on here.
With a member of their club removed by the Xi regime, world tennis could not stay silent and was left with a predicament: Keep quiet and try to ride out the #MeToo media storm in the West, or make a racket and risk upsetting the Chinese gravy train.
The Peng case has also thrown into relief worrying signs of Chinese elite capture within the sporting world’s governing bodies. On Monday, World Athletics president and International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Sebastian Coe airily brushed aside calls for a boycott of next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics as a “meaningless gesture” and suggested that politicians and diplomats could ask “tough questions” while attending the Games. Surely nobody could be this naive about the Xi regime in 2021?
IOC president Thomas Bach has been criticized by human rights groups after holding a video call with Peng on Sunday and releasing a statement that she is “safe and well.” Why did Bach think it was a good idea to assist Beijing in producing a second propaganda video? Was it naivety, or was Bach scratching Beijing’s back to protect lucrative deals linked to the Olympic Games? For sporting elites, the show must go on, whatever the human cost.
Selective concern and moral equivocation are, of course, not limited to the sporting world, with big business just as culpable in its continued courting of Chinese dirty money. Nevertheless, participation at the Beijing Winter Olympics should provide an acid test as to the sincerity of democratic nations and their liberal values.
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