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Why Peng Shuai’s Denial That She Was Sexually Assaulted Only Raises More Questions for China

9 minute read

With the eyes of the world on China for the Winter Olympics, tennis star Peng Shuai appeared before the international media—assuring everyone that she had never actually accused a former top Chinese Communist Party official of sexual assault, and that the attention on her was an “enormous misunderstanding.“

Her denial on Monday, in the form of a highly controlled in-person interview in the Beijing Olympic bubble with French sports newspaper L’Equipe, was the latest in a series of retractions that she has been repeating for months. In the interview, Peng—who is one of China’s highest-profile athletes, having won two Grand Slam doubles titles—also seemed to announce that she was retiring from international tennis competition.

Then, on Tuesday, she made an in-person appearance alongside International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach at the women’s big air event—the highest-profile moment yet of the 2022 Winter Games, in which star Chinese free skier Eileen Gu won her first gold medal, in dramatic fashion.

Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of China’s nationalist tabloid Global Times, summed up China’s expectations that Peng’s very public appearances ought to be the last word on the matter. “Western media should respect her own explanation, such as whether she was sexually assaulted,” he tweeted. “Peng’s own explanation is most credible.”

Hu blamed the West for having “maliciously interpreted” Peng’s post on Chinese social media in November, in which she said retired Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli coerced her into having sex with him.

Read more: China Is Trying to Make Peng Shuai’s Allegations Disappear

Experts and activists, however, say that Peng’s denials only raise more questions about whether she is facing threats or repercussions from her accusation on social media. Moreover, they argue that her statements cannot be taken at face value. “Western media and the public at large easily and rightfully recognize that all the interviews and appearances are staged, not genuine,” Yaxue Cao, human rights activist and editor of Chinese resource website China Change, says.

China has a history of silencing voices that mar the Party image, and has kept a #MeToo groundswell at bay through heavy censorship of cases including Peng’s. As such, Peng should not be faulted for her public appearances, says Lu Pin, a prominent Chinese women’s rights activist based in New Jersey. “Blaming Peng for this falls into the trap set by a violent system once again,” she says. “We should refrain ourselves from blaming the victim, and from focusing on the victim’s right or wrong actions or words.”

Peng Shuai as a propaganda tool

When Xi Jinping became Chinese President, he emphasized the need to “tell the China story well.” Controlling China’s narrative to the rest of the world became a key goal, and the surveillance state has helped make that possible.

Peng’s appearances at the Winter Games, especially the interview with L’Equipe, suggest the extent of this control. The journalists who interviewed her detailed the restrictions in securing an interview with Peng through the Chinese Olympic Committee (COC). She was only to answer in Chinese—although she speaks English. Questions were required to be submitted in advance. The interview had to be published verbatim in a question-and-answer format. A Chinese Olympic committee official also sat in on Peng’s interview and translated Peng’s responses in English. (L’Equipe said it also had an interpreter for accurate translations.)

The limited appearances echoed those in November when she emerged on international Chinese state media following two weeks of silence when many outside China—including the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA)—raised concerns about her safety and wellbeing. Even as her public appearances have become higher profile, they have remained tightly controlled.

“For China, the Peng Shuai incident is a political disaster for the Party at the worst moment possible, and censorship, denial, propaganda campaign are China’s ideas and methods of how to clean up this disaster,” Cao says.

Activists also note that Chinese citizens have been allowed to see few hints of the furor over Peng. Her post disappeared from Weibo—China’s Twitter-like platform—within 30 minutes. (Peng told L’Equipe that she was the one who deleted it, and that she did so “because I wanted to.”) Weibo has banned keywords related to Peng’s case. Her account was also scrubbed of recent activity. Still, some Chinese users found ways to get around censors, resorting to coded references to keep the discussion alive.

Criticism of the IOC continues

Freestyle Skiing - Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Day 4
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach speaks with Peng Shuai prior to the Women's Freestyle Skiing Freeski Big Air Final on Day 4 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Big Air Shougang on Feb. 8. 2022 in Beijing.Richard Heathcote–Getty Images

Critics have argued that the IOC, as the international organization that has interacted most with Peng, should demand an independent investigation into Peng’s allegations. But, the IOC argues its powers are limited. “We are a sporting organization,” IOC Spokesperson Mark Adams told reporters this week in response. “And our job is to remain in contact with her and, as we’ve explained in the past, to carry out personal and quiet diplomacy, to keep in touch with her, as we’ve done.” As to whether the claims Peng made against the retired vice premier should be investigated, Adams said the IOC cannot make that judgment.

Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, accused the IOC of making Peng’s situation worse—and not better—with its involvement. “I believe the IOC is further traumatizing Peng Shuai by trotting her out for public appearances and staged interviews, trying to convince the public of her well-being,” she says. When asked for comment, the IOC pointed TIME to an earlier statement that described her meeting with IOC officials, but made no mention of her allegations.

Read more: Why the IOC Intervened on China’s Behalf in the Peng Shuai Controversy

The IOC has been accused of supporting China’s efforts to quell the controversy in the run-up to the Winter Olympics—repeating Beijing’s call against mixing sports and politics. In contrast, the Women’s Tennis Association, a global body which Peng was a member of, took a much harder stance: it pulled out all of its business from China, throwing away a $1 billion deal. WTA chairperson and CEO Steve Simon has since been asking for a probe and a private meeting with Peng without government minders, but has been rebuffed.

Retirement as silence

Peng also told L’Equipe that she is unlikely to return to the WTA Tour, ending her professional competitive tennis career at age 36. She cited multiple knee surgeries and the COVID-19 pandemic behind her decision: Since the Qatar Open in February 2020, Peng has not competed, and she said she also did not qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. “Even if I no longer participate in professional competitions, I will always be a tennis player,” L’Equipe quoted her as saying.

Her retirement, however, alarmed activists. Lu thinks Peng’s career ended in “a cruel and hasty” manner. It also means she no longer has a reason to travel outside China, where she might be able to speak more freely. “Peng’s retirement clearly means that the international sports community, including the WTA and her peer athletes, can no longer hold the Chinese government accountable for her case,” says Lu.

Cao adds that keeping Peng in China helps the government to control the narrative surrounding her.

The future of the #MeToo movement in China

Activists say the handling of Peng’s case has parallels with the chilling of #MeToo accusations across the country. China has effectively scrubbed any mention of #MeToo and its Chinese hashtag #WoYeShi from its social platforms. Issues surrounding Peng Shuai are also censored. According to WeChatScope, a University of Hong Kong research project that tracks censorship on Chinese social media, Beijing is keen to stamp out anything that challenges authorities and advocates for change.

Men accused of wrongdoing are also fighting back. Last year, a Beijing court dismissed the case of Zhou Xiaoxuan, who alleged that state TV personality Zhu Jun assaulted her during her internship, over lack of evidence. Zhu then sued Zhou for defamation. World Wildlife Fund employee Wang Qi, who said in 2018 that she was forcibly kissed by her boss during a work trip, was forced by a court to apologize.

“[The] #MeToo movement in China is now going into a difficult time,” Lu says. “On one hand there are many people like Peng Shuai who are standing up and speaking out, on the other hand it is being suppressed like never before.”

Read more: Why the World Should Pay Attention to China’s Feminists

But Peng’s case was a milestone in calling international attention to the way that China’s political system can be intertwined with sexual violence, Lu says. During the Australian Open, organizers reversed a ban on T-shirts supporting Peng Shuai following a global outcry. Lu believes that news of the case has inevitably made its way back to survivors in China, and she hopes it will become a driving force to spark a new reckoning for #MeToo. “The end of her case, like many other failed cases in the #MeToo movement is both awakening and also making people feel angrily powerless,” Lu tells TIME.

In the interview with L’Equipe, Peng said she didn’t understand the international attention on her, or questions about her wellbeing.

“​​I don’t think we need to suspect that our concern for Peng Shuai is excessive,” Lu says. “Even if we can’t imagine all the ridiculous things that can happen in China, we have to believe that it’s never wrong to worry about a person’s safety.”

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