Peng Shuai and Mutual Incomprehension
The WTA's outlier decision, West vs China in the 2020's, idealogical differences trump sporting mutualism
The WTA is currently standing at the fork in the road facing two diverging paths when it comes to its business in China. It is now 23 days since Peng Shuai made the original accusation of sexual assault against former senior Chinese Communist Party Member Zhang Gaoli.
State of affairs
By now Peng Shuai has been seen and filmed in a restaurant, during which the date was randomly and loudly mentioned repeatedly at the table during the video as if it was being used as some sort of verification. She has been seen making a promotional appearance at the National Chinese Tennis Centre. And finally Peng was seen in a video call to the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach. The WTA, its players, staff and contacts, have still been unable to reach the player directly. And most sightings of Peng have been released by Chinese State affiliated media, primarily by Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, whose Twitter feed is full of pro-China/anti-West illustrations. None of these reports have been posted domestically in China, only for the exhibitive ‘benefit’ of the West and to try to assuage the WTA et al’s concerns about Peng Shuai’s health and safety. Censorship and internet tinkering continue domestically to both hide and/or spin what little makes it through the ‘Great Firewall’. Peng Shuai’s Weibo account is still restricted, as is any mention of her name.
The WTA have not found these appearances reassuring, stating that the recent videos “don't alleviate or address concern about her wellbeing and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion.” China’s foreign minister, Zhao Lijian, responded to increasing Western coverage by saying “I think some people should stop deliberately and maliciously hyping [the issue] up, let alone politicise this issue.”
Outside of the IOC’s history of ignoring any and all geopolitical issues as long as it ensures the smooth functioning of the Olympic Games (the Winter Olympics are due to be held in Beijing in 2022), IOC President Bach was even pictured with the man alleged to have assaulted the woman he video called. Zhang Gaoli was the leader of the 24th Winter Olympics Work Leading Group and would have worked extensively with Bach, which makes that call with Peng Shuai all the more concerning.
Elaine Pearson, the Australian director of Human Rights Watch, noted that it was “shameful to see the IOC participating in this Chinese government’s charade that everything is fine and normal for Peng Shuai. Clearly it is not, otherwise why would the Chinese government be censoring Peng Shuai from the internet in China and not letting her speak freely to media or the public.”
In much of the Western reporting surrounding Peng Shuai the same old misunderstandings or assumptions have cropped up when it comes to the West vs China topic. Much of the coverage refuses to explore or dignify the question of ‘why?’ the Chinese state acts in the ways it does, and regularly assumes that the West’s ideologies are well understood, or even coveted, in modern China. But it’s necessary to understand that ‘why?’ in order to think about what will happen between tennis, and sport as a whole, and China in the coming decade.
In the first piece that I wrote about Peng Shuai weeks ago, this was the most important paragraph:
When looking at how the West and China clash on issues like this it’s helpful to at least try and view the events through their two opposing and entirely incompatible ideologies. Much of the West values individual agency and democracy as tools for human existence and progress. China, while also aiming for progress and the flourishing of its people, has comparatively little faith in its own citizens to self-regulate their behaviour in order to achieve that progress. Freedom and autonomy are replaced with an all-important political mantra of doing what is ‘for the good of the state’, and therefore by the CCP’s own circular logic, also its people. China has banned video games for children, is cracking down on what it calls the ‘sissification’ of society (in Mandarin the “niang pao”), generally considers citizen-led social activism as anti-progress, and even views other religions and ethnicities that reside in China as culturally incompatible with their grand vision (hence their abhorrent treatment of the Uighurs). Contrastingly in many Western nations, a government mandated ban on video games would come across as alien-like heavy-handedness for the general public, while sexual orientation and identity has experienced massive progressivism over the past decade. Any attempt at cultural and religious ‘re-education’ of minorities living within most Western nations would be seen as a human rights atrocity. And movements like #Metoo and BLM for example are only possible, and seen by many as vital stepping stones of progress, in societies with the freer flows of information present in many western nations. The equivalent movements, unless they serve the goals of the CCP, are largely seen as weakness by the Chinese state — sickly symptoms of rampant individualism and people-power that are fundamentally irreconcilable with the Chinese Communist Party’s long term ambitions for China’s future role as the most powerful country on earth. Numerous Western nations view this Chinese approach as authoritarian overreach. The Chinese state views it as necessary babysitting of what they identify as the dark, distracting sides of humanity in its quest for the most productive, pure and successful society possible.
Thinking that China will evolve closer to Western ideology as the country grows in economic power was a vaguely acceptable mistake to make until approximately two years ago. But rhetoric and actions out of China in these last 24 months have been as explicit as ever (frankly rhetoric since the early 2010’s has been extremely clear to those paying attention, although China news was underreported on and under-consumed in the West for much of the last decade). As of 2021, the West and China are now mutually incomprehensible in ways which seem less solvable than at any point in recent history.
China is essentially running an experiment to see whether a country with its ideologies, which include a basic refusal of the rule of law (no society that can disappear and/or silence those who criticise its leaders can be said to have a functional rule of law), can scale to be a prosperous superpower. And it should be noted that there is little modern precedent for nations becoming truly prosperous, at least in terms of GDP per capita, without rule of law in place:
But Beijing is undeterred. Modern China has always believed in a fundamental importance of Marxist-Leninist thought and all that it entails. The Chinese state views the liberal values promoted by much of the West as a truly existential threat. The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which focused on speech/press freedoms and democratic reform, form visible and idealogical scar tissue for China which has petrified them away from any notion of democracy and individual freedom (the Tiananmen Square protests are heavily censored in China).
In the last thirty years, as the Chinese Communist Party has become increasingly illiberal, much of the West has become increasingly liberal. The ideologies are drifting further and further away from one another.
Xi Xingping, recently entrenched as an eternal leader of China, has been extremely explicit about the above for nearly a decade. In 2014 he proclaimed that “Western hostile forces are speeding up their ‘Peaceful Evolution’ and ‘Color Revolution’ in China” as a way of “Westernising and splitting up China overtly and covertly.” and that “struggles in the ideological field are extraordinarily fierce” and “although [they] are invisible, they are a matter of life and death.” Much of the West views their liberal democracies as the neutral end point, or the final evolution, of the societal and idealogical aims of the human race. China views that position as hostile and an in-progress Western misstep rather than a successful end point of society and order. Again to emphasise, democracy and individual freedoms are viewed as a neutral fact of the optimal society by much of the West. The Chinese state views them as just another, less attractive, ideology, competing aggressively and existentially against their own.
All this is to say that China and the West have rarely been more divergent than they are right now. And this divergence looks set to continue in the coming years. The Chinese Communist Party internally forecast that China will surpass the United States in terms of total GDP by the end of this decade, and there is significant speculation that the CCP will seek to use that potential ‘world leader’ status to float the Yuan to challenge and destabilise the US dollar’s current position as the primary global reserve currency. Perhaps most worryingly, an increasingly powerful China, led by Xi Jinping looking for ways to strengthen his legacy to rival the domestic reverence for Mao Zedong, represents an increasing likelihood of an attempt at a forceful reunification with Taiwan. The next decade threatens to be extraordinarily tense when it comes to West vs China relations, unless one side backs off from their current rhetoric, which doesn’t look likely.
International sport in China in the 2020’s
The Peng Shuai situation will not be, and has not been, an isolated incident. China will violate the human rights which much of the West holds sacred again and again simply because those same expectations of individual rights are not held sacred, or even particularly important relative to their overarching missions, by Beijing. Reminders of this reality appear weekly with Hong Kong protester Ma Chun-man jailed for six years earlier this month merely for protesting. So the question becomes whether sporting organisations can operate in China by accepting the fundamental and increasing idealogical differences mentioned above, or whether it would be simpler, and from their perspective more morally correct, to pull out from the country.
The Olympics have chosen wholeheartedly to put ideological differences aside in the interest of their business. The NBA, the Premier League, F1 et al have all largely held the same position up until this point (Formula 1, for example, recently extended its contract for the Chinese Grand Prix, keeping the race in Shanghai through 2025). Tennis, and specifically the WTA, is the outlier here. WTA CEO Steve Simon, despite inking some of the WTA’s deals with China in the first place back in 2018/19, has repeatedly responded firmly to the Peng Shuai situation and made it clear that the current lack of a resolution is a roadblock in the continued business of women’s tennis in the country. Perhaps tennis could look at the Peng Shuai situation as a way to take an important and brave moral stand while also extricating themselves from a raft of potential geopolitical complexities over the next decade. Let’s say one of the most destabilising scenarios unfolds: China re-absorbs Taiwan by force in the next few years. What on earth, for example, are F1 going to do if that happens with vague proximity to the Chinese Grand Prix scheduled to next be held in 2023? Hold the race, and subsequent races, anyway amidst an impending war, or at the very least an enormous diplomatic skirmish? Mutual incomprehension looks set to intensify over the next decade, and sports can either gamble that tensions will stop just shy of boiling over, they can risk pulling out of the country at the last minute if tensions were to suddenly rise (likely a costly scenario in the short term but more lucrative in the long term), or they can pull out preemptively.
The idea of sport, which has always been an international force for good in the ways that it provides mutual understanding and passion no matter what language or culture fans speak or come from, having to become less international because of a mutual incomprehension on a much larger scale than itself, is an extremely sad proposition for many reasons. But as China (and Russia) and ‘the West’ drift further and further apart, sport may well become just another casualty, at least temporarily, of deep and dividing idealogical differences. The sheer incompatibility of democracy vs autocracy.
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Top: Hong Wu/Getty
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