IOC’s middleman role in Peng Shuai case may invite boycotts of 2022 Olympics in Beijing
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On Sunday, the International Olympic Committee announced that Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai had assured IOC president Thomas Bach in a video call that she is “safe and well,” and living at her home in Beijing.
A photo of the encounter, published on the IOC website along with a statement summarizing their 30-minute conversation, shows Peng smiling and seated in a room surrounded by brightly colored stuffed animals. According to the IOC, Peng, a three-time Olympian, told Bach in the call that, while she appreciated the world’s concern about her welfare, she “would like to have her privacy respected at this time.”
The statement vaulted Bach and the Olympics governing body into the center of global controversy over Beijing’s treatment of Peng following a post to her Weibo social media account accusing a senior ex-government leader of coercing her into sex. The IOC later described Bach’s call with Peng as an exercise in “quiet diplomacy.” But the effort inspired noisy criticism of the organization from human rights groups, Western political leaders, and athletes—and rekindled calls for a global boycott of the Winter Olympic Games, set to begin Feb. 4 in Beijing.
Peng’s 1,600-character Weibo post, published Nov. 2, is extraordinary. It alleges that she was assaulted by Zhang Gaoli, who served as China’s senior vice premier from 2013 to 2018. The post claims Zhang first pressured Peng to have sex with him more than 10 years ago in Tianjin, and describes a complicated, on-again, off-again relationship that ended when Zhang was promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest ruling council. Then three years ago, after Zhang retired, the post alleges, he sought Peng out, invited her to his home, and again forced her into sex. (Zhang has not responded to the allegations publicly.)
If Peng’s claims are unprecedented, Beijing’s response to them is not. Censors scrubbed Peng’s post from China’s Internet within minutes. Peng disappeared from public view for weeks. China’s state media have blacked out all discussions of her allegations and fate.
Outside China, that clampdown appears to have backfired, prompting human rights organizations and global tennis stars including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, and Chris Evert to express concern on social media with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai? The White House and the United Nations called on the Chinese government to provide proof of Peng’s whereabouts. The Women’s Tennis Association demanded an investigation into Peng’s allegations and threatened to pull tournaments out of China, potentially sacrificing billions of dollars in sponsorship money, unless Beijing can confirm that she is safe.
Peng re-emerged last week, but in an oddly stilted fashion. On Wednesday, the state-owned broadcaster China Global Times Network released what it said was an e-mail Peng had sent to WTA chairman Steve Simon in which she said the assault allegations were not true. “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe,” it read. “I’ve been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.”
Simon expressed skepticism about veracity of the statement. “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the e-mail we received or believes what is being attributed to her.” Others said the e-mail sounded like a hostage note.
Over the weekend, a series of photos and videos of Peng—attending a popular restaurant in downtown Beijing, signing autographs at a junior tennis tournament—began popping up on Twitter. But the accounts posting those images all were individuals connected to China’s state-owned media or state-run sports system.
The call with Bach was Peng’s first known direct contact with officials outside China since making her allegations. The IOC declined media requests to release a full video of the conversation.
Steve Tsang, a Chinese politics professor at the SOAS China Institute, told Fortune that in becoming a middleman between China and the world in the Peng case, the IOC may be undermining its own credibility. The IOC’s call with Peng may “generate more pressure on democratic governments to boycott diplomatically the Winter Games,” he said.
President Joe Biden said Thursday that the U.S. is considering a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics, meaning that no U.S. officials would be dispatched to attend the games. U.S. lawmakers from both parties have urged a diplomatic boycott to protest Chinese human rights abuses, though that is a position many advocated before the Peng affair, and the gesture would be mostly symbolic. Beijing, clinging resolutely to its “COVID zero” pandemic policy, already has decreed the games off-limits to foreign spectators.
Bloomberg columnist Clara Ferreira Marques argues that Beijing’s clumsy attempts to quash international outrage over its treatment of Peng Shuai “show just how hard it is for China to balance domestic imperatives and international goals—and what it will sacrifice to retain control.” That sounds about right.
More Eastworld news below.
This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Grady McGregor. Reach him at email@example.com.
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