Where is Peng Shuai?

| November 20, 2021

As international concern about Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai’s whereabouts grows and more of the world’s top tennis stars weigh in, Beijing’s propagandists are floundering.

Hu Xijin, the impish editor of the rabidly nationalistic Global Times newspaper who is usually never short for words, tied himself in knots on Twitter on Friday. ‘As a person who is familiar with the Chinese system, I don’t believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for the thing people talked about,’ Hu tweeted.

The ‘thing people talked about’ that Hu can’t quite bring himself to say is the accusation of sexual assault Peng made against a former high-ranking Chinese Communist Party official in early November. The grim reality is that the former world doubles champion is most likely being held in detention in retaliation for speaking out.

Hu’s limp attempt at an explanation followed an even clumsier one by China Global Television Network (CGTN) the day before, when the party-state media organisation posted what it claimed was an email from the 35-year-old saying that she was ‘resting at home’ and that the allegation of sexual assault was ‘not true’.

The screenshot of the email lacked a date, header or signature but, on the third line, included a cursor, suggesting it was taken either before the email was sent or as it was being crafted in a text document. In other words, CGTN, an organisation already known for producing and broadcasting forced confessions by dissidents, expects us to believe that Peng typed the email and, while still editing it, took a screenshot to send to them before sending it to the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).

To say CGTN’s claim stretches credulity is an understatement. Here are just some of the questions that spring to mind: Why didn’t CGTN post the email on Weibo, or anywhere else on the Chinese internet? For that matter, if Peng is safe and sound, why didn’t she post the statement to her own Weibo page? Why hasn’t any Chinese domestic media reported on the email? And why is Peng’s name being censored inside the Great Firewall?

Both Hu’s tweet and CGTN’s likely fabricated email share the same lifeless, imitative style of the CCP Propaganda Department. Neither Hu nor CGTN—because, let’s not kid ourselves, it wasn’t Peng—dared to mention the 75-year-old man Peng had accused, former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli. Nor did they even hint at the lengthy post that Peng put on her Weibo account on 2 November that contained the accusation of sexual assault that was promptly censored.

The phoney email’s chillingly robotic tone—‘I hope to promote Chinese tennis with you all if I have the chance in the future. I hope Chinese tennis will become better and better’—was in stark contrast to Peng’s Weibo post which was vivid, plaintive and heartbreaking.

‘I know that someone of your eminence, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ll say that you’re not afraid’, Peng wrote, ‘but even if it’s just striking a stone with a pebble, or a moth attacking a flame and courting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you.’ While one rings hollow, the other has a resounding ring of authenticity.

‘If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,’ George Orwell wrote in Politics and the English language, but it applies just as equally to any other language, including Chinese. China Digital Times, a website that tracks Chinese internet controls, captured the lament of one Chinese internet user that the country’s censorship and propaganda apparatus has destroyed language and turned learning the truth into a fearful thing:

“There is a ‘new normal’ in this land: On hearing about the scandals of high-level officials, our instinctive reaction is fear. We know which side will win before the battle is even fought. Everyone knows this, but no one dares to discuss it; everything is secretive and swept under the rug. Everything is reduced to code words; everyone nudges you into deleting your posts. It’s as if, by the simple act of reading something, we have become the wrongdoers.”

For Chinese citizens, reacting with fear is entirely reasonable. The Chinese government has a long history of arbitrarily detaining people involved in controversial cases, controlling their ability to speak freely and making them give forced statements. The possibility that a female tennis player, no matter how famous, will win out against a man who was only recently the seventh-highest official in the CCP is slim. There are already signs that Peng is being thrown down the memory hole.

Thankfully, outside of China, Peng’s peers have not been silenced. World tennis champions Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic have joined a chorus of voices expressing their fears about Peng’s whereabouts. The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai is trending globally. Importantly, the WTA has called for an investigation into Peng’s complaint and said it is prepared to pull tournaments out of China if it doesn’t get an appropriate response.

In a statement, WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon said that CGTN’s claim ‘only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,’ adding, ‘I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her.’ The WTA has offices in Beijing, Shenzhen and Hong Kong, so the risk it is running in standing up to the CCP is not insignificant.

It’s hard to see a way out of the impasse. The CCP presents its leadership as unimpeachable, but Peng’s allegation reveals dishonesty and hypocrisy at its highest echelons. At the same time, there’s growing momentum behind the calls for assurances about Peng’s safety that are unlikely to go away until she is seen to be safe and well, and allowed to speak freely.

With the Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics just two months away, it’s incumbent on everybody to continue to ask the question: Where is Peng Shuai?

This article was published by The Strategist.

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