A weird email from Chinese state TV stirred more questions about a missing tennis player’s safety

Peng Shuai at the Australian Open in January 2020.
Peng Shuai at the Australian Open in January 2020.
Image: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji
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After a two-week silence, China finally made an attempt to explain tennis star Peng Shuai’s whereabouts, after the player vanished from public sight following her sexual assault accusation against a former Chinese leader. But the weird format and wording of the message prompted concern rather than relief.

In a post on social media site Weibo on Nov. 2, Peng, who won women’s doubles at Wimbledon in 2013, reportedly accused Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex at his home about three years ago. Peng’s accusations against Zhang, China’s vice premier between 2013 and 2018, and discussion related to it were swiftly censored in China. There’s almost no trace of the incident on the Chinese internet amid the country’s blanket censorship and the silence of Chinese media—who won’t speak about the allegation even outside the country.

But Chinese citizens quickly screenshot the initial message and circulated it, including on overseas social media, where it has drawn the attention of global tennis players. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), the sport’s main body, has demanded China end its censorship of Peng and investigate her allegations, while pros including Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, have expressed their concern about the 35-year-old’s safety.

As international pressure grows, Chinese state-owned media CGTN posted an email on Twitter on Wednesday, which claiming it was from Peng to Steve Simon, the head of the WTA. The outlet shared the full content of the email in a screenshot without explaining how it obtained the information. “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine,” read the email, which also said the allegations against Zhang were untrue and demanded that the WTA verify any news about Peng with her before publishing it.

Somehow that wasn’t entirely reassuring.

Why the CGTN tweet on Peng Shuai drew suspicion

China has a long history of forcing dissidents and activists to “confess” their crimes or make certain statements through TV or other fora.

Many pointed to what looked like a mouse cursor in the second line of the email, arguing that suggested the email was still being composed, and hadn’t been actually sent. But in that case, how did CGTN apparently get a hold of it? Some also pointed to the line “I hope Chinese tennis will be better and better” at the end of the email as evidence of the state’s intervention in drafting the email. The formal and robotic language resembles that used by state propaganda, a style that is very different from Peng’s own Weibo posts, say observers.

In response to the email, Simon of WTA said it only added to the body’s concerns about Peng’s safety. “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.

Meanwhile, influential US tennis player Serena Williams joined the growing outcry after the release of the email, tweeting on Thursday that she was “devastated and shocked” to learn the news about Peng. “I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent,” she wrote. Andy Murray, a two-time Wimbledon champion, also joined the campaign, tweeting today that Peng’s whereabouts are still unknown.

“This creepy tweet by CGTN is a good example of the fusion of incompetence and authoritarian hubris in China’s official messaging,” tweeted Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the think tank the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “…messages like these are meant as a demonstration of power: ‘We are telling you that she is fine, and who are you to say otherwise?’ It’s not meant to convince people but to intimidate and demonstrate the power of the state.”

Why is the WTA pushing back on China?

For many observers, the most surprising element in the incident is not the clumsy attempt of state media to manage the allegation, or the global response, but the especially strong stance of the WTA, which has substantial business interests in China.

In an interview with CNN Thursday, Simon said the association is willing to pull its tournaments, which could be worth tens of millions of dollars, from China if Peng’s allegations are not investigated properly. In 2018, the association reached a lucrative 10-year deal to move its finals to China, with Shenzhen committing to build a new stadium for the purpose. It also has a long-term deal with Chinese streaming platform iQiyi, and held 10 tournaments in China in 2019, according to its website. Games were canceled last year and this year due to the pandemic, and China’s strict Covid rules.

Simon also told the outlet that the Chinese Tennis Association has made assurances about Peng’s safety but the WTA hasn’t been able to reach her directly.

The WTA’s stand poses a stark contrast to that of many other multinationals and sports associations. The norm is either to stay quiet on social injustices in China, or in cases where they have already taken a stance, to beat a retreat when faced with a backlash from Beijing. For example, H&M, which faced a consumer boycott earlier this year over an earlier statement that promised not to source cotton from Xinjiang due to concerns about forced labor concerns, in March issued a fresh statement on the issue that avoided mentioning Xinjiang even once.

In the sports world, the International Olympic Committee has been criticized for saying that it is “encouraged by assurances” that Peng is safe. Given there are less than three months before the 2022 Winter Olympics to be held in Beijing, the incident could add further fuel to calls to governments to consider a diplomatic boycott of the games, an idea first raised due to concern over the mass detentions of Uyhgurs in Xinjiang.

Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist for the Washington Post, pointed to the WTA’s history advocating for women as one possible explanation for its position. The association’s co-founder Billie Jean King has long been dedicated to helping female tennis players gain recognition and pay equal to their male counterparts.

“…the WTA is rightly using its power as the No. 1 platform in the world for female athletes on Peng’s behalf. King believed that to be listened to, a woman had to be No. 1,” wrote Jenkins. “Everyone else engaged with Beijing seems either inattentive, afraid or compromised and immobilized to the point of tacitly condoning crimes against humanity.”