The Sports Examiner: China’s own system created the Peng Shuai drama, and now they can’t get out of it

IOC President Thomas Bach, on a video call with China's Peng Shuai (Photo: IOC/Greg Martin)

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Truth is very much stranger than any fiction, with an accusation of sexual abuse turning into a government abuse scandal in China, all concerning a 35-year-old tennis player named Peng Shuai (family name is Peng).

She was a star player earlier in her career, having risen to no. 14 in the world rankings in 2014 and winning two Grand Slam Doubles titles, at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014. A three-time Olympian in 2008-12-16, she’s won more than $9.6 million in prize money but currently ranks no. 307 in the WTA Singles rankings and 192nd in Doubles.

But on 2 November, she posted a message on her Weibo blog account, detailing sexual assaults three years ago by former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli (now 75). The post was deleted within minutes and Peng’s social-media accounts went silent. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman was asked about this on 3 November and replied “this is not a question related to foreign affairs.”

Interest in Peng’s whereabouts grew as the silence in China grew louder and “#WhereIsPengShuai” became a trending social-media tag. But then the scandal exploded on 14 November when Steve Simon (USA), the head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) issued a statement which included:

“Her accusation about the conduct of a former Chinese leader involving a sexual assault must be treated with the utmost seriousness. In all societies, the behavior she alleges that took place needs to be investigated, not condoned or ignored. We commend Peng Shuai for her remarkable courage and strength in coming forward. Women around the world are finding their voices so injustices can be corrected.

“We expect this issue to be handled properly, meaning the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship.”

As Peng continued to be hidden from the public, Simon doubled down and on Thursday (18th), told CNN, “We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it. Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business.”

For China, this is now a major problem on multiple fronts. Although various state-run media outlets released photographs and some video of Peng over the last few days, no one in the West believes in their authenticity, at least that they were made under coercion.

Moreover, few people realize the depth of the WTA ties to China and the astonishing timing of the scandal:

● While the Peng situation was unfolding, the WTA Finals was taking place on Zapopan, Mexico, from 10-17 November, having been moved from Shenzhen in China in September due to travel restrictions related to Covid-19 issues in China. But for the disease, the WTA Finals would have been taking place in China when the Peng issue broke open.

● The WTA has a long-term agreement to hold the multi-million-dollar WTA Finals – its showcase tournament – in Shenzhen through 2030.

● In addition, eight other WTA tournaments of varying levels were scheduled in China for 2021, but were all canceled due to Covid: January (Shenzhen), April (Anning), two in September (Guangzhou and Wuhan), three in October (Beijing, Tianjin and Nanchang) and the WTA Elite Trophy in November in Zhuhai, prior to the WTA Finals.

On Sunday, the International Olympic Committee got into the action, announcing that President Thomas Bach (GER), Athletes’ Commission Chair Emma Terho (FIN) and Li Lingwei, a member of the IOC in China, former badminton star and former member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Congress had been on a 30-minute video call with Peng. The IOC’s statement included:

“At the beginning of the 30-minute call, Peng Shuai thanked the IOC for its concern about her well-being. 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. That is why she prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now. Nevertheless, she will continue to be involved in tennis, the sport she loves so much.

“‘I was relieved to see that Peng Shuai was doing fine, which was our main concern. She appeared to be relaxed. I offered her our support and to stay in touch at any time of her convenience, which she obviously appreciated,’ said Emma Terho.”

The video itself was not released, but this was the first direct contact with Peng with anyone outside of China. A WTA statement, however, followed up with:

“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. This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegations of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern.”

That’s where we are right now.

Beyond the calls for Peng to essentially be allowed to leave China to tell her story – a very difficult option for the Chinese Communist Party – there are many shrill voices still demanding that the 2022 Olympic Winter Games be removed from Beijing and castigating the IOC for allowing the Winter Games to be held there. That’s not going to happen:

● With 74 days remaining before the Opening Ceremony on 4 February, the Games isn’t going anywhere. For those who claim that the only reason that the Games will go on is because the IOC wants to collect its television rights fees, the 2,892 expected athletes from 84 or more countries are the central reason the Games needs to be held as scheduled.

● The IOC’s miserable experience with the host-city election for 2022 between Beijing and Almaty (KAZ) convinced Bach that the entire bidding system had to be changed to avoid such choices. And the process has changed. Instead of holding elections in which two bad candidates can end up as the only options, the IOC now chooses its host cities quietly and in a way which steers the selection to a suitable country. After Beijing, the next Games go to democratic countries in France (2024), Italy (2026 Winter), the U.S. (2028) and Australia (2032). The 2030 Winter Games are likely to end up in Japan or the U.S.

● The outcome of the Peng scandal may quite possibly be a very quiet, very unofficial version of the lengthy suspension that Russia is now undergoing after its national doping program centered on the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. The Olympics are not likely to return to China for quite a while.

More interesting, perhaps, will be the fall-out from all of this – including the assault accusations against Zhang – on the future of other sporting events in China. Major events scheduled for 2022 include the World University Games in Chengdu from 26 June-7 July, and the Asian Games from 10-25 September in Hangzhou.

There are lots of World Cup events scheduled in China for 2022 and World Athletics was supposed to hold its World Half Marathon Championships in Yangzhou next March, but has delayed it until 13 November due to Covid. On Monday, World Athletics chief Sebastian Coe (GBR) told BBC Radio Four that he would vote for holding events as scheduled and dismissed the talk of a “diplomatic boycott” of the Winter Games:

“That is a meaningless gesture and a damaging gesture. No organising committee or national Olympic federation, if I’m being a little blunt here, is going to miss a minister.

“But what does this mean and where does this leave our diplomatic mission? They are still on the frontline of diplomacy with China. Leaving the frontline diplomatic opportunities is a dilemma.

“Frankly, I think that is a hollow gesture. I think it is far better that you have ministers there, that you maintain diplomatic relationships, and that you ask the tough questions. …

“If you go back into the history of sport, whether it’s the 1936 Games of Jesse Owens or the Black Power salutes in 1968, sport is a very powerful driver of integration and change.”

There are other points of view, of course, and the WTA – not the IOC – is now the leader in the how-do-we-deal-with-China issue that has been centered on the genocide against the Uyghur Muslims, on the crushing of democracy in Hong Kong and other issues. But now the regime’s actions against an aging tennis player could be the first in a long series of steps which could impose a significant worry on the Chinese Communist Party: international disapproval, de-legitimization and isolation. All based on – as they say in tennis – an unforced error.

That is the power that sport represents.

~ Rich Perelman

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