WORLD

Outcry grows as China breaks silence on missing tennis star

Bloomberg

Chinese state media broke its two-week silence on the whereabouts of tennis star Peng Shuai, but the effort to knock down her allegations of an affair with a former Communist Party leader were met with skepticism from supporters.

Chinese state broadcaster CGTN on Thursday posted a letter attributed to Peng on its Twitter account. “I am not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine,” the letter said, adding that her purported allegations of sexual assault were “not true.”

Peng Shuai of China returns a ball during the semifinal match against Shahar Peer of Israel in the Guangzhou WTA Tour in Guangzhou Saturday, Sept. 19, 2009.

The scandal comes at a sensitive time for China, with President Xi Jinping’s government preparing to host athletes and other dignitaries from around the globe at the Winter Olympics starting in February. Party factions are also vying for key positions ahead of a twice-a-decade party congress next year, at which Xi is expected to secure a precedent-breaking third term.

International pressure had been mounting for China to clarify Peng’s safety. Grand Slam champions Novak Djokovic, Naomi Osaka and Chris Evert expressed concern over her case this week, while the Women’s Tennis Association’s head Steve Simon called for an investigation into her allegations. He separately told the New York Times the group might reconsider its operations in China, including 11 tournaments, if it didn’t see a sufficient response. 

Simon dismissed the CGTN letter as unsatisfactory: “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” he said in a statement. China has a history of issuing coerced statements on behalf of detained individuals -- authorities released a confession from Hong Kong pro-democracy protester Simon Cheng after he was detained in mainland China in 2019, which he subsequently disavowed.  

Peng went silent after posting a 1,500-character essay to her verified account on China’s Twitter-like Weibo earlier this month detailing a turbulent, decade-long sexual relationship with the party’s former No. 7 official, Zhang Gaoli. The post and discussion about it were subsequently scrubbed from social media, and Bloomberg News hasn’t been able to independently verify that it came from her. 

China’s Public Security Ministry and General Administration of Sport haven’t replied to Bloomberg’s questions on Peng. And the Foreign Ministry has sidestepped the issue, with spokesman Zhao Lijian saying for the fourth consecutive day Thursday that he didn’t know about the case.

“My answer is very simple: This is not a diplomatic question,” Zhao told reporters at a regular news briefing in Beijing. “I am not aware of the situation you mentioned.”

Notably, the letter was published by CGTN, China’s international-facing, English-language broadcaster, suggesting it was intended for foreign consumption. Mareike Ohlberg, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program, said that while Chinese propaganda organs often failed to communicate convincingly with foreign audiences, there was “more at play here.”

“Messages like these are meant as a demonstration of power,” Ohlberg wrote. “It’s not meant to convince people, but to intimidate and demonstrate the power of the state.” 

Entrenched Patriarchy 

Xiaowen Liang, a Chinese feminist, activist and lawyer based in New York, questioned why information about the case hadn’t been made available in China, where Peng’s Weibo account, which has about 570,000 followers, has had its comment function turned off. “They understand how serious this issue is and that’s why they’re censoring in such a bad way,” Liang said, referring to the Chinese authorities.

China’s Communist Party officially bans cadres from having extramarital relationships, and its discipline watchdog often cites such conduct when charging senior officials with corruption. Questions about whether Peng was abused in the relationship make the case particularly explosive.

China has sought to keep #MeToo uproar from spreading inside its borders. Earlier this year, a former intern at state broadcaster CCTV, who lost her civil suit against a TV host she accused of sexual assault, said her social media accounts were suspended. 

Despite the challenges women in China face in having accusations of sexual misconduct heard, Liang said they had been “inspired and empowered” by the #MeToo movement.  

“You can censor one,” she said, “but the next day another person speaks up.”

With assistance by Colum Murphy, Iain Marlow, and Lucille Liu