Tennis Players Face the Communist Party: Where’s Ping Shuai?
Some of the world’s most famous tennis players, stunned by the disappearance of teammate Peng Shuai, challenge the Chinese Communist Party for answers.
So far, the showdown has been of little consequence as tennis players such as Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic – joined by tennis governing bodies, human rights groups, retired players and many athletes’ lobby groups – attempt to turn their profiles into a force.
Ping disappeared after making sexual assault allegations more than two weeks ago against former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli who was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and Assistant Secretary-General Xi Jinping.
Athletes may feel a pressure point.
China is just two and a half months away from hosting the Winter Olympics in Beijing, which is facing a diplomatic boycott over allegations of crimes against humanity involving at least one million Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. NBA player Enes Kanter has been the most vocal in defense of the Uyghurs, calling Xi a “brutal dictator”.
Ping case is unique. She’s a sports star and has a platform and credibility that few other women in China share. The effort to silence Peng reflects the Communist Party’s determination to suppress criticism of its leaders and prevent any organized public response.
Athletes are particularly politically sensitive because they are known and loved. The ruling party announces its victories, especially those of a three-time Olympian like Peng, as proof that it is making China strong again.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has repeatedly denied any knowledge of the case. Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told the media on Friday that the issue was “not a diplomatic issue and I am not aware of the situation.”
Peng wrote a lengthy social media post on November 2 in which she said she was forced to have sex with Zhang three years ago. The post was quickly removed from Peng’s verified account on Weibo, a leading Chinese social media platform. But screenshots of the explosive charges have been posted online.
Athletes have been weighing in ever since.
“Censorship is not acceptable at any cost,” Osaka wrote on social media, adding the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
“This must be investigated, and we must not remain silent,” Williams added.
“This is terrifying. I mean, someone is missing,” Djokovic said at the ATP Finals in Turin, Italy. “The whole community, the tennis community needs the support of her and her family, making sure she is safe and sound because if you have tournaments on Chinese soil without resolving this situation That would be a little strange.”
The players were encouraged by the unwavering support of the Women’s Tennis Association and its president and CEO, Steve Simon. Simon threatened to pull the WTA events out of China. That means nearly a dozen next year, including the WTA Final.
“There are so many times in our world today when you get into issues like this that we allow business, politics and money to dictate what is right and what is wrong,” Simon said in an interview on CNN.
“And we are certainly ready to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with because . . . this is bigger than business.”
The ATP called for players’ solidarity to defend Ping, who is known as his brave opponent.
“We must unite and be ready to take action unless sure evidence is presented to the world about Peng Shuai’s well-being,” the association said.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman wrote on Twitter: “We are deeply concerned by reports that tennis player Peng Shuai is missing, and join calls for the People’s Republic of China to provide independent, verifiable evidence of her whereabouts. Women everywhere deserve to be Reports of sexual assault are taken seriously and investigated.”
Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the United Nations human rights office in Geneva, said Friday that she was calling for a “full transparency investigation into her allegations of sexual assault.”
Global Athlete, an advocacy group, has asked the Switzerland-based IOC to suspend the work of the Chinese Olympic Committee until Peng’s safety is assured.
“The IOC must use its significant influence to ensure that the international community provides evidence of Peng’s whereabouts, immediately grants Peng safe passage out of China, and conducts a full and transparent investigation into her sexual assault allegations,” Global Athletes President Rob Koehler said in a statement.
Although Peng was a former Olympian, the IOC remained calm. A sports company, it derives 91% of its income from the sale of broadcast and sponsorship rights. But it prefers to portray itself as a non-governmental organization that does its part to defend lofty ideas such as “promoting a peaceful society concerned with preserving human dignity”, which appears in its Olympic Charter.
Kirsty Coventry, the chair of the IOC Athletes Commission that is supposed to represent the interests of Olympic athletes, has not commented on this question. The IOC has always said athletes are their number one priority, but there is growing pressure from some athletes to get a bigger slice of the IOC’s billion-dollar pie.
“Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best chance of finding a solution to issues like this.” The International Olympic Committee said in a statement. This explains why the IOC has not commented further at this point. “
She also said she had received assurances that Peng was “safely”.
“It is surprising that the IOC accepted the government’s assertions, especially since a female Olympian’s alimony makes serious allegations,” Human Rights Watch said.
The World Olympic Federation declined to issue a statement. It claims to represent 100,000 live Olympians. It was founded by Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., who heads the IOC’s preparations for the Beijing Olympics that begin on February 4. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach is the honorary president.
“The IOC has more influence than any other organization with the upcoming Winter Olympics,” Koehler of Global Athletes wrote to the Associated Press. “They need to use that now. The athletes who go to these games are watching how the IOC will protect the athletes.”
Associated Press reporter Joe MacDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.
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