Scott Stinson: As Beijing Olympics loom, Peng Shuai threatens to explode China’s sports diplomacy

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The Peng case is also, unlike a long-standing ethnic conflict, something with a clear and obvious solution: let her speak.

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China hosted its first Olympic Games in 2008 in Beijing. Barely seven years later, he offered to welcome them again, in the same city. By any practical measure, that didn’t make sense, but with Western nations at the time moving away from the costly Olympic ventures, Beijing 2022 was granted.

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China, which just spent billions to host an Olympics, is now reportedly spending billions more to show the same city it just showed. Strange as this move is, it fits a model of China and its ruling Communist Party, using sport to project its power and influence on the world stage.

China has hosted NBA and NHL games in recent years, and its Chinese Super League was on the verge of disrupting the world football order five years ago when its teams began attracting foreign stars with massive wage offers, a project that would have President Xi Jinping’s blessing. . This boom period has since faded, but China remains an important part of the international sporting calendar with golf, tennis and Formula 1 racing events.

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But with Beijing 2022 just over two months away, all that sports work as diplomacy threatens to come undone thanks to events involving one of China’s own sports heroes. Peng Shuai, the 35-year-old tennis star who was once one of the best doubles players in the world and herself a three-time Olympian, has been missing for two weeks.

She posted a lengthy message on Chinese social media accusing Zhang Gaoli, a senior Communist Party official, of forcing her to have sex with him three years ago, but it was quickly deleted. When she had no further news and the Women’s Tennis Association was unable to make contact, fears grew that she was detained following her allegations.

A state-owned television station published a letter which it claimed was from Peng. He dismissed the sexual assault allegation as “not true,” which is odd since the allegations first came from her verified social media account, and said she was not missing but was ‘she was “resting at home and that all was well”. The bland tone of the statement contrasted sharply with the original vanished post, in which Peng described years of grief in which, she said, Zhang used her and “rejected” her.

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Steve Simon, the head of the WTA, said in response to Peng’s alleged letter that it only increased her concern and that his organization wanted verifiable proof that she was okay. He said the WTA will reconsider its ties with China – where the WTA Finals are expected to be held for the next nine years in Shenzhen – if his concerns are not addressed. Some of the sport’s biggest stars, including Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, have championed the cause on social media, and federations like Tennis Canada have called for “compelling proof that she is safe.”

Next, Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli is seen during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on Wednesday March 16, 2016.
Next, Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli is seen during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on Wednesday March 16, 2016. Photo by Ng Han Guan

There were many reasons to question Western participation in Beijing 2022 before last week, from the relatively isolated detention, such as the illegal detention for years of a pair of Canadian businessmen, to the broader, such as reports of human rights violations against the Uyghur minority population in northeast China, which amounts to a campaign of ethnic cleansing. But a case like Peng Shuai’s might focus those concerns in a way that allegations of what’s going on in Xiajiang Province might not, for the simple reason that she’s someone with an international profile. . She has powerful friends, and the story of an athlete who went missing after allegedly assaulting a well-connected party animal quickly became a global cause.

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In the same way that attention to reporting about assault or abuse can explode when posting a corroborating video or audio, Peng’s familiar name and smiley face add a surprising personal touch to anything. thing that has long been understood outside of China: the CCP will get rid of the issues it does not want to deal with in the way it sees fit.

The Peng case is also, unlike a long-standing ethnic conflict, something with a clear and obvious solution: let her speak. If she wasn’t detained because she dared to report a former politician, then let’s see her. It’s a simple request, and anyone from the International Olympic Committee to individual countries can make it by the Beijing 2022 Opening Ceremony in early February: produce Peng Shuai, or we’re not coming. Either a member of the Olympic family – as the IOC likes to call it – has been taken hostage in their own country or it has not. So what is it ?

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  1. Peng Shuai of China at a China Open tennis tournament in Beijing.  On Sunday, eighteen Grand Slam winner Chris Evert became the foremost member of a tennis community increasingly concerned over the question of Peng's whereabouts.

    ‘Where is she?’ Chinese tennis player who accused politician of rape appears to be missing

  2. Tennis - Australian Open - First Round - Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia - January 21, 2020 China's Peng Shuai in action during the match against Japan's Nao Hibino

    Women’s Tennis Association set to withdraw from China tournaments over Peng’s allegations

The IOC, unsurprisingly, has not taken an aggressive stance. So far, it is a question of using a line from a spokesperson, working on “quiet diplomacy”. The same spokesperson also said that the IOC had received “assurances” that Peng was okay, a statement that should have caused nagging wounds around the world. China didn’t get the benefit of the doubt here.

In the meantime, the United States has reportedly been looking at a diplomatic boycott of Beijing 2022, which means its athletes would compete but not send politicians or other government officials to the Olympic celebrations and the usual gunfire. Other Western countries should follow this example.

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But the big question is whether a diplomatic boycott becomes a full boycott – or at least the threat of a full boycott – if Peng does not return to public view in the days and weeks to come. Would China allow its world sports spectacle to be compromised just to protect the reputation of one of the president’s friends?

“You said you weren’t afraid,” she wrote in her original post, and she knew that picking on someone like Zhang would be “like throwing eggs at a rock” . She seemed to know it was hopeless.

Peng Shuai can still discover that she had stronger allies than she imagined.

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