AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
Peng Shuai is a famous Chinese tennis player, well known within the sports world, but until a little over a month ago, largely unknown to the world at large. She was not a political figure. She had no history of speaking out on politics. Yet in today’s China, everything is political. On November 2nd, 2021, Peng took to Chinese social media to complain about a climate of sexual impunity that applied to senior officials of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and in particular fingered former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, whom she accused of coercing her into a sexual relationship. Rather than stating a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and promising an investigation, the Chinese government reacted by trying to go after Shuai. Discussion of the case on Chinese media was banned. Peng herself vanished.
Then something shocking happened. People around the world stood up to Beijing. The CCP had no reason to expect this. Major corporations have bent over to Beijing, censoring content the CCP finds objectionable. Governments have handed over key assets like the airports in their national capitals (as Uganda was forced to do recently). China is openly threatening the U.S. Congress in an attempt to prevent passage of legislation to protect American intellectual property. The dangers of standing up to China are significant, especially for those invested in the country. In October of 2021, the Boston Celtics had their highlights removed from China’s Tencent sports platform after Celtics center Enes Kanter criticized Xi Jinping.
Yet despite the risks, athletes rallied to Peng’s aid. Serena Williams, Billie Jean King, and Naomi Osaka all spoke out. Government officials joined them. More surprisingly, so did international sporting bodies, such as the International Olympic Committee and the World Tennis Association, which on November 19, 2021, announced it would pull all future competitions out of China. This was a brave stand given Chinese influence in general, especially over sporting associations. China will host the Winter Olympics next Winter, and the WTA stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in TV and streaming contracts without its Chinese business.
Faced with this pushback, the CCP has responded in ways which only seem to support Peng’s accusations and suggest that her disappearance was an effort to silence her. The CCP has released awkward video and photos of Peng supposedly at meals with her family at restaurants and “wishing fans a happy weekend,” giving the distinct impression of hostage videos. Most provocative was a letter, purportedly from Peng to the IOC recanting her charges of sexual assault.
The IOC, to their credit did not accept the letter at face value, demanding the chance to speak with Peng herself, un-coerced. They received the first part of that demand when the WTA was allowed a 30 minute “call” between Peng and the International Olympic Committee. Yet the call itself has reinforced rather than undermined the determination of those standing up to Beijing. According to an IOC statement, “She explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time.” The WTA declared, “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.”
It has long been assumed that standing up to China is futile. This may have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If anyone who stands up to the CCP finds themselves alone, because every potential ally is too scared to speak, then they will indeed be crushed, proving the uselessness of such efforts. But in the case of Peng Shuai, we see something else. When faced with unrelenting criticism over the tennis star’s disappearance, and the serious risk of reputational consequences, the CCP back-peddled. Not only did they release the pictures, but they also subsequently allowed the phone call. These are minor concessions, perhaps, but they show that Beijing understands the issue is inflicting enormous damage on its image, both at home and abroad.
The White House, which was already mulling a “diplomatic boycott” of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, a mushy compromise under which U.S. officials will not attend but otherwise U.S. athletes will participate, should go further and prohibit American participation, organizing an alternative games with nations which have also expressed concern for Peng’s safety. This issue provides both an opportunity and a risk. The risk of course is obvious. If Peng is forgotten, her safety is likely to be sacrificed as well. Even if she says and does everything the CCP wants, it is unlikely they will forgive her for the crisis she has caused, much less risk allowing her to travel abroad ever again. Her only plausible safety lies in being allowed to leave China. That must be the demand.
The opportunity for China critics lies in the nature of the issue. This is not a geopolitical clash where the CCP can appeal to nationalism. When it comes to Taiwan, the CCP can rally both Chinese nationalist sentiments domestically, and the self-interest of many countries around the world opposed to unilateral secession. When it comes to clashes with the United States, the CCP can try and argue that great power competition involves moral equivalency. Nothing could be further from the truth here. As the story has developed, it has come to appear that almost everyone in China knows someone who has faced harassment or pressure from a CCP goon. The reason the Chinese government has panicked and cracked down so heavily on discussion of this case within China’s censored media is presumably because it was breaking through to even their strongest supporters.
Internationally, it is a chance to rally countries and people of all backgrounds against the blatant abuse of an innocent woman who merely called out sexual abuse by a powerful man. There is no argument that anyone can make against it. Peng was in China, not the West when she made the charges, had no history of political activism, and the crackdown is a blatant attempt to silence the accuser by the CCP. The issue at stake is not political. It is about power, and whether officials of the Chinese government are beyond any sort of accountability.
Biden and other Western leaders have a chance to rally public opinion on an open and shut case. They should provide full backing to the IOC and WTA, including support in finding alternative venues for their events. Congress should use momentum to pass the Innovation and Competition Act, and go further. Rather than merely supporting U.S. tech firms which divest from the Peoples’ Republic of China, they should extend that to media firms and sports franchises. Even those who become famous and rich from the Chinese market are vulnerable to the whims of CCP apparatchiks.
Furthermore, Shuai’s case provides a clear warning of what a world under Chinese hegemony looks like. For all the CCP might talk autonomy and allowing separate systems with separate development, the CCP will not tolerate criticism of itself or any powerful figures in it, no matter their transgressions against either law or common human decency. It is clear that standard will be extended anywhere China holds influence. What that means is that freedom and safety cannot survive for anyone in a world where China enjoys economic hegemony. Peng Shuai is a canary in a coal mine. Thank God so many are now standing up. Because if a stand is not made here, where will it be?
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.
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