Some of the world’s most famous tennis players, shocked by the disappearance of their colleague Peng Shuai, challenge the Chinese Communist Party for answers.
So far this is a stalemate with little visible impact as tennis players like Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic – joined by tennis governing bodies, human rights groups , retired players and several athlete lobbies – are trying to turn their profile into power.
Peng disappeared after making sexual assault allegations more than two weeks ago against former Deputy Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli, a member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee and lieutenant of Secretary-General Xi Jinping.
Athletes can feel a pressure point.
China is just 2.5 months away from hosting the Winter Olympics in Beijing, which faces a diplomatic boycott over allegations of crimes against humanity involving at least 1 million Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. NBA player Enes Kanter has been the most outspoken in defending the Uyghurs, calling Xi a “brutal dictator”.
Peng’s case is unique. She is a star athlete and she has a platform and credibility that few other women in China share. The effort to silence Peng reflects the determination of the Communist Party to quell criticism from its leaders and prevent any organized public response.
Athletes are particularly politically sensitive because they are known and admired. The ruling party is publishing 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 matter. Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told 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 three years ago with Zhang. The post was quickly deleted from Peng’s verified account on Weibo, one of China’s major social media platforms. But screenshots of the explosive charges were shared on the internet.
Since then, the athletes weigh heavily.
“Censorship is never acceptable at any cost,” Osaka wrote on social media, adding the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
Williams added: “This needs to be investigated and we must not remain silent.”
” It’s horrible. I mean, one person is missing, ”Djokovic said during the ATP final in Turin, Italy. “The whole community, the tennis community must support her and her family, make sure that she is safe and sound, because if you had tournaments on Chinese soil without resolving this situation, it would be a bit strange. “
The players were emboldened by the unequivocal support of the Women’s Tennis Association and its President and CEO Steve Simon. Simon threatened to pull WTA events out of China. That means nearly a dozen next year, including the WTA Finals.
“There are too many times in our world today when you tackle issues like this that we let business, politics, money dictate what’s right and what isn’t.” Simon said in an interview on CNN.
“And we’re definitely ready to take our business out of business and face all the complications that come with it because. . . it’s bigger than the business. “
The Professional Tennis Players Association called for the solidarity of players to defend Peng, who is known as a fearless competitor.
“We must unite and be ready to take action unless corroborated evidence is provided to the world on Peng Shuai’s welfare,” the association said.
US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman tweeted: “We are deeply concerned at reports that tennis player Peng Shuai appears to be missing, and we join calls on the PRC to provide independent and verifiable evidence of its whereabouts. Women everywhere deserve to have reports of sexual assault taken seriously and investigated. “
Liz Throssell, spokesperson for the United Nations human rights office in Geneva, said on Friday she called for “a transparent investigation into her allegation of sexual assault.”
Global Athlete, an advocacy group, has called on the Switzerland-based International Olympic Committee to suspend the Chinese Olympic Committee until Peng’s safety is guaranteed.
“The IOC must use its considerable influence to ensure that the international community receives proof of Peng’s whereabouts, that Peng is immediately allowed to leave China safely, and that a full and transparent investigation is carried out into his whereabouts. allegations of sexual assault, ”said Global Athlete Manager Rob Koehler said in a statement.
Although Peng is a former Olympian, the IOC has remained silent. A sports company, it derives 91% of its income from the sale of broadcasting and sponsorship rights. But it prefers to present itself as a non-governmental organization whose role is to defend noble ideas such as “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”, which appears in its Olympic Charter.
Kirsty Coventry, chair of an IOC Athletes’ Commission supposed to represent the interests of Olympic athletes, made no comment. The IOC always says athletes are their first priority, but there is increasing pressure from some athletes to get a bigger slice of the billion dollar IOC pie.
“Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution to questions of this nature.” the IOC said in a statement. “This explains why the IOC will not comment further at this point.”
He also said that he received assurances that Peng was “safe”.
“It’s astonishing that the IOC accepts government assurances, especially at the expense of an Olympian making serious allegations,” Human Rights Watch said.
The World Olympians Association declined to release a statement. He claims to represent 100,000 living Olympians. It was founded by Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., who is leading the IOC’s preparations for the Beijing Olympics which begin on February 4. The President of the IOC, Thomas Bach, is the honorary president.
“The IOC carries more weight than any other organization with the Olympic Winter Games coming up,” Global Athletes’ Koehler wrote to AP. “They have to use it now. The athletes who make it to these Games are watching how the IOC will protect the athletes. “
AP reporter Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.