By Adam Taylor
When Peng Shuai alleged in a November 2 social media post that she was sexually assaulted by China's former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, it quickly made waves in China.
But it was what happened after that shook the world. Peng disappeared from public life. Discussion of her allegations and fate were censored on social media, only reappearing in a carefully curated way over the past weekend as international outrage grew.
China’s media blackout was designed to stem domestic discussion of the allegations against Zhang, just one of the string of #MeToo allegations involving high-profile men but unusual in that it named a top official, rather than a celebrity. But internationally it has backfired, breathing new life into calls for nations to boycott the upcoming Winter Olympics, set to begin on February 4 in Beijing.
Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin had reported that the Biden administration was considering such a move. “Sooner rather than later, according to several sources familiar with the plans, the White House is expected to announce that neither President Biden nor any other US government officials will attend the Beijing Games,” Rogin wrote on November 16. Biden later confirmed publicly that he was considering the measure.
Now, however, Peng’s sudden disappearance from the spotlight, as well as her odd reappearance amid global scrutiny, may make this look like a half measure. Rights groups, including those focused on Tibet and Xinjiang, have been calling for a boycott for months. Hardline Republicans, such as former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Senator Tom Cotton have called on the Biden administration to go further and restrict US athletes from competing at all.
“If the Chinese Communist Party will take its own athletes and disappear them and then march them out in hostage videos like this, what will they do to our athletes?” Cotton said on Fox News on Monday.
A full Olympic boycott would be a big move. Though the US famously boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, then the capital city of its Cold War rival the Soviet Union – and suffered a retaliatory Communist boycott four years later when Los Angeles hosted.
China has scoffed at the idea that a boycott would hurt them. “We are firmly opposed to any words and deeds that politicise sports in violation of the Olympic spirit,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Monday. But state media appears to be slowly admitting such a boycott could happen.
On Monday, party tabloid the Global Times published an editorial that “anti-Chinese forces” were converging ahead of the Games, but said it provided an opportunity for “China's growth in mentality as a major power”.
As The Post's Lily Kuo reported last week, the Games have special meaning. When Beijing hosted the Summer Games in 2008, it was interpreted as a sign that China had arrived on the world stage. Now, they carry a message about a newly confident China. “The Beijing Winter Olympics are Xi Jinping's Games,” Xu Guoqi, a historian at the University of Hong Kong, told The Post.
A diplomatic boycott could well be an embarrassment for Xi, but its success may depend on what other countries join it. Aside from the US, other nations, like Britain and Canada, are reportedly considering it. But smaller nations may well be mindful of the wrath of Beijing.
“An incoherent response will only underline the west's lack of resolve,” the Guardian's Patrick Wintour wrote on Monday.
A broader boycott would certainly hit harder. It could also address some of the concerns about safety that Cotton and other advocates have espoused. But it would also throw athletes into the centre of a political maelstrom, with many missing out on what could be their only shot at Olympic gold.
Peng has reappeared, but the pressure on Beijing hasn’t disappeared. After Shuai had a series of appearances that struck many observers as unsettling, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach had a half-hour video call with the Chinese tennis player on Sunday. In an announcement, the IOC said Peng “explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time”.
The news drew criticism from some rights groups. Yaqiu Wang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, accused the IOC of playing a role in the “Chinese government’s enforced disappearance, coercion and propaganda machinery” and compared the images of Peng speaking to Bach to other messages that appeared to show forced or coerced statements from critics of China.
Though the IOC has hinted at action against China if Peng was mistreated, the organisation has a vested interest in a financially successful Beijing Games, with 91% of its income coming from broadcasting rights and sponsorships, according to the Associated Press.
Other organisations have taken bolder steps. The Women's Tennis Association has said it would pull out if Peng's allegations were not properly investigated, a move that could cost it hundreds of millions of dollars. On Monday, the WTA said images of Peng’s reappearance “don't alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion”.
Tennis stars like Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams have also drawn attention to #WhereIsPengShuai, while rights groups and organisations like the UN have stepped up their criticism of China.
That it was the disappearance of Peng, rather than the masses of evidence of human rights violations against Uyghur and others, that turned the tables on China is surprising. But the action taken by Peng herself was certainly courageous. She risked far more than money when she went public with allegations against Zhang. Though her actions may have kick-started a geopolitical boycott, her motivations were personal.
“I know I can’t say it all clearly, and that there’s no use in saying it,” she wrote at the start of her post to her official Weibo account that included the allegations. “But I still want to say it.”
This article first appeared in Saturday Insider, Nov 27, 2021