Now, more than two weeks later, Beijing is facing a storm on its own, as the global women’s tennis community stands up to challenge Chinese officials for silencing one of their peers.
Peng, 35, a former two-time doubles Grand Slam champion, has disappeared from the public eye since she accused former Deputy Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli, 75, of forcing her to have sex at home. him in a post deleted from social media on November 2. Since then, Chinese censors have carefully cleaned up his name and even the vaguest references to his allegations on the internet.
Concerns only grew after Chinese state media on Wednesday published a screenshot of an email, allegedly from Peng and sent to the WTA, revisiting his sexual allegations and claiming that “everything is fine “.
With less than three months to go before the Winter Olympics, analysts say the controversy, if unresolved, could snowball into an unprecedented showdown between the wider sports community and Beijing.
“Sports fans around the world will pay attention to this story, which concerns billions of people,” said William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at the NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD).
âThis is an absolutely looming catastrophe for the Chinese government. With each day approaching the Winter Olympics, the catastrophe becomes more and more important for them – if they don’t fix this.â
The Beijing Olympics, slated for February, already face growing calls for a boycott of the Chinese government’s crackdown on Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. And the global outcry over Peng’s disappearance – who has competed in three Olympics – may amplify those calls, Nee said.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), meanwhile, said it would not comment on the matter and suggested that “quiet diplomacy” should be approached, Reuters reported. CNN has contacted the IOC for comment.
But the WTA refused to play the game.
“There (are) too many times in our world today when we tackle issues like this we let business, politics, money dictate what is good and what is not. “Simon, the head of the WTA, said in his interview with CNN on Thursday.
âWe have to start as a world making decisions based on right and wrong, period, and we can’t compromise that,â he said. “We’re definitely ready to take our business out and face all the complications that come with it. Because it’s definitely, it’s bigger than the business.”
Preparing to turn its back on access to the Chinese market, including a 10-year agreement to host its annual final in the city of Shenzhen, in southern China, the WTA is launching a direct challenge to Beijing.
Beijing regularly uses market access as a powerful lever to force Western companies to be silent about human rights, or to follow its lines on issues such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. But in the case of the WTA, such tactics did not work as intended.
âSo far, from a business and human rights perspective, the WTA does a much better job than almost any company that has been involved in controversies in China. And it actually shows a way forward. follow up to do it, âNee said with CHRD.
Mareike Ohlberg, senior member of the German Marshall Fund’s Asia program, said the bold move by the WTA was “the right thing to do.”
“This is frankly what more (organizations) should be doing. Most organizations are very afraid of China, (fearing) that China might punish them. I think it’s important that more organizations realize that they also carry a certain weight, âshe said.
The nature of Peng’s allegations also set his case apart from previous political controversies involving Chinese crackdowns in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. In these cases, a furious Beijing has lashed out at Western companies for their interference in “China’s internal affairs.”
But the women’s rights movement knows no national borders. To date, the Chinese government has decided to remove the #MeToo plea. He has used his authoritarian apparatus to detain, imprison, threaten and silence Chinese feminists and their supporters. And he mobilized his propaganda machine to portray feminism as a puppet of Western influence designed to undermine China.
But now such tactics can prove to be counterproductive, as the global #MeToo movement is helping to bring attention to Peng’s case, Ohlberg said.
âIt’s a transnational movement that has links overseas, and so you can’t limit it to just one country, and you can’t just have people locked up in China,â she said.
“And that’s why it’s so important that people keep talking about these things internationally. Because if you’re based in China, the state has so many options to silence you,” he said. she declared. “(The international community) has a certain responsibility to show solidarity.”
In silencing Peng, Beijing faces an unusual dilemma. If Peng were to appear on state television, analysts say many will take what she says with a grain of salt, given the long experience of Chinese state media in broadcasting forced confessions or others. statements made under duress by persons in extrajudicial detention.
And while in Western democracies it would be easy for the ruling party to deny such accusations, or even distance itself from a senior official, in China party leaders are blameless on the part of the general public.
And Zhang is no ordinary leader. He previously served on the Polituro Standing Committee, made up of seven members of the Communist Party, the country’s supreme body, alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The only way for top leaders to fall from grace is to be disciplined by the party itself, as some have done in Xi’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign.
To date, the Chinese government has repeatedly refused to comment on Peng’s case. Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Peng’s accusation was not a diplomatic issue and declined to comment further. CNN has contacted the Information Office of the State Council of China for comment.
Hu is the only prominent state media propagandist to comment on Peng’s case in public, albeit on a platform banned in China.
“As someone familiar with the Chinese system, I don’t think Peng Shuai suffered any retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for what people have been talking about,” he wrote in the early hours of Thursday. – apparently too scared to even mention the name of the accused or the nature of the allegation.