In November, Peng Shuai, a former top-ranking Chinese tennis player, made global headlines after she leveled sexual assault allegations against a former Chinese leader. After that she was little seen or heard from. As concern over her situation grew outside China, the International Olympic Committee spoke to her via a video call and pledged to visit her during the Beijing Winter Olympics, which began last week.
On Saturday, Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, had dinner with Peng, the IOC said today (Feb. 7). Peng also attended a mixed curling match between China and Norway that day with Kirsty Coventry, another member of the IOC, the committee said.
For those who have been concerned about Peng’s situation since she aired her allegation on Weibo against Zhang Gaoli, a former Chinese vice-premier, the statement and interview will hardly be reassuring. Many believe that even if she’s not detained, she’s not able to speak freely—a not uncommon fate for Chinese citizens or activists who criticize the government. That concern prompted the World Tennis Association to ask Chinese tennis officials about her well-being last year, and then announce that it would pull out of China.
Soon, strangely worded tweets and odd photos shared by Chinese state media tried to counter the concern about Peng, including showing her at home surrounded by dozens of stuffed animals posted to her WeChat account. A separate interview Peng did with French sports daily L’Équipe, also published on Monday, could continue to fuel fears that Peng is following a state-approved script. Peng told the outlet that she deleted the Weibo post herself because she “wanted to,” that her post has been misunderstood, and that she never accused anyone of sexually assaulting her. Peng did the interview in the company of the Chinese Olympic Committee’s chief of staff, who also helped to translate the answers.
Her initial Weibo post, however, and any discussion of her allegation have been thoroughly scrubbed from China’s internet, and the state media communications about her were only issued on foreign platforms like Twitter. State media also argued western countries were politicizing her situation.
Similarly, while the meeting with Peng has been widely covered today by outlets ranging from the New York Times to the Guardian, in China, searches of Peng’s name or about the meeting on Chinese search engine Baidu and Weibo returned no relevant results, but only old news reports, including one about Peng’s first-round defeat in women’s singles in the 2020 Australian Open.
Major Chinese news portals including state-owned the Paper.cn, Sina News, and Netease News also haven’t carried any news items about the meeting on their home pages or sports pages. Peng’s Weibo account currently cannot be found on the platform, and it is unclear whether she or the company has deactivated or hidden the page. There are no visible discussions about the meeting on Weibo either.
Instead, the talk of the day for Chinese social media and outlets is the Olympic debut of US-born freestyle skier Eileen Gu, who chose to compete for China at the Winter Games. Her performance at a qualifying competition today has been heavily praised by the Chinese public.
The collective silence on the meeting is yet another reminder of China’s success at creating a parallel universe inside the country’s great firewall, which has prevented Chinese citizens from accessing most foreign websites. Thanks to the country’s increasingly sophisticated censorship machine, developed often with help from its tech giants, China has managed to squash any discussion of topics the regime doesn’t like, including the Hong Kong protests or feminist discussions, while at the same time using US social media to push its messaging on these topics.
At this point, there is probably little that can convince overseas observers that Peng is free, and able to speak freely, short of an appearance outside China, free of government-linked handlers. But such an appearance is not imminent—the IOC statement noted that Peng said she intends to travel to Europe “when the Covid-19 pandemic is over.”