By Qiao Long and Fong Tak Ho
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has said it will consider ceasing to do business in China if the authorities continue to prevent tennis star Peng Shuai from contacting the rest of the world freely and without censorship.
In a letter to Chinese ambassador to Washington Qin Gang, the WTA said it is now at “a crossroads” with regard to its China ties, and calling for Peng to be allowed to leave China, or to speak freely via video with WTA CEO Steve Simon.
It said if Beijing ignored its requests, it would have reconsider the nine tournaments and other events the WTA currently operates in China.
“If Peng Shuai is not safe, free to move about or speak freely, we have grave concerns that none of our players will be safe in China,” Simon said.
After International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach was granted a half-hour video call with Peng amid global fears for her safety, the WTA said it wasn’t reassured.
“It was good to see Peng Shuai in recent videos, but they don’t alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion,” a WTA spokesperson said.
“This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern,” the statement said.
Concerns have grown for Peng’s safety after she accused former vice premier Zhang Gaoli — who is four decades her senior — of forcing her into a sexual relationship in a Nov. 2 social media post, raising concerns about her personal safety among Chinese feminist campaigners and international sports associations.
An email allegedly penned by Peng was broadcast by CCP mouthpiece CGTN on Nov. 17, saying Peng’s allegations were “not true,” and that she isn’t “missing.”
“I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe, I’ve been resting at home and everything is fine,” CGTN quoted the email as saying.
The rights group Safeguard Defenders said Peng could be being held under “residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL),” a form of secret detention.
Using the hashtag used by those concerned for Peng, the group tweeted: “#WhereIsPengShuai highlights [the] incessant practice of enforced disappearances in [China].”
“She is very likely to be held under secret detention #RSDL,” it said.
Bach spent 30 minutes on the video call with Peng, the IOC said in a statement on its website.
“Peng … explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time,” it said. “That is why she prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now.”
The statement was accompanied by an image of Bach speaking with Peng, who is visible on a monitor.
IOC image compromised
U.K. rights campaigner Luke de Pulford tweeted a 2016 photo of Bach shaking hands with Zhang.
“Seems a good time to re-up this picture from 2016 of @iocmedia President Thomas Bach meeting with Zhang Gaoli – the man #PengShuai said sexually assaulted her,” de Pulford wrote.
“Bach is playing an active role in a cover up of an alleged sexual assault. He should resign,” he said.
The WTA said Peng hasn’t been seen in public for more than two weeks, and photos and video footage of had done little to assuage public fears.
CCP-backed Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin tweeted video clips of himself apparently having dinner with Peng on Saturday.
Yang Haiying of Japan’s Shizuoka University said the IOC had compromised its public image by revealing its close ties to the Chinese government.
“How did [that happen]? Bach is the head of an international body, so how can he engage in cheerleading for the CCP?” Yang said. “It shows what an unusual relationship exists between the IOC and China; perhaps it goes even deeper than that.”
Safeguard Defenders said the e-mail and social media photos of Peng with a large plush toy collection were typical of the use of forced, scripted media offerings from detainees.
“PengShuai’s CGTN-released letter and social media posts are but a variation on their use of TV-confessions … the purpose is the same (and likely the methods of producing it),” the group said.
Current affairs commentator Wang Zheng said the unified message on Peng coming out of Beijing likely belies what is going on behind the scenes.
“The Peng Shuai revelations came just before the sixth plenum of the CCP Central Committee, and involved a former member of the Politburo standing committee,” Wang said. “So this whole thing is very political, and the struggle [over how to respond] is still raging fiercely.”
Peng’s recent disappearance came as U.S. President Joe Biden said his administration is “considering” a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.