The Disappearance of Peng Shuai and Tennis' China Dilemma
Sports vs China, different lenses and ideologies, what can tennis do?
Peng Shuai, a former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion, has reportedly not been seen since accusing a former Chinese Communist Party official of sexual abuse.
Update from Steve Simon, WTA CEO, via Christopher Clarey: “We’ve received confirmation from several sources, including the Chinese Tennis Association, that she is safe and not under any physical threat,” But Simon also noted that no one associated with the WTA Tour, including officials and active players, had been able to reach her directly to confirm her status:
The original accusation, posted from Peng’s official Weibo account on the 2nd November, read as an open letter to 75-year-old Zhang Gaoli who served as China’s senior Vice Premier (2013-2018), and was also a member of the Politburo Standing Committee (2012-2017). This is the first of these #MeToo, or at least #MeToo adjacent, accusations to be publicly aimed at a senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Official. Although to be clear, while this is being widely reported in the West as #MeToo, Peng didn’t mention the #MeToo movement in her accusation.
Peng referenced a previous affair between her and Zhang (who is married) before the official was promoted to the Standing Committee in 2012, but goes on to describe more recent events, over seven years later, once Zhang had retired.
“After I had finished playing, you and your wife Kang Jie took me to your home. You took me to your room, and like what happened in Tianjin over ten years ago, you wanted to have sex with me. I was very scared that afternoon, I had not expected things to go this way. I had buried it all inside me, and since you were not planning on taking responsibility at all, why did you come and look for me again, take me to your house, and force me into sex? I have no proof, and it would be impossible for me to keep any evidence. You denied everything… That afternoon I originally did not consent and cried the whole time. ”
“…From beginning to end, you have always asked me to keep my relationship with you secret, let alone telling my mother that we were in a relationship… I felt like a walking corpse. I was pretending so much every day that I didn’t know who the real me was anymore..”
“I know that for someone of your status, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid. But even it’s like striking a stone with an egg, and courting self-destruction like a moth to the flame, I will tell the truth about you.”
Peng’s post was deleted within thirty minutes of being posted and the CCP’s censorship machine clicked into overdrive.
Peng's Weibo account has been blocked from searches, while all comment sections under previous posts have been shut down or filtered. Search results and comment sections for Zhang Gaoli also received similar treatment. A Weibo discussion page about tennis was also closed for comments and it was even reported that the Mandarin Chinese word for tennis (网球 - wăngqiú) was censored.
A regular occurrence when censorship like this happens in China is that internet users will find more obscure or unrelated platforms and communities, that are less obvious targets of the initial waves of censorship, to discuss the topic. For example the page of a Korean romance TV show ‘Prime Minister and I’ was censored on Douban (China’s equivalent of IMDB), after users gathered to discuss the Peng and Zhang situation in the movie’s review section.
#MeToo and dissent in China
Unlike the Peng instance, there have been plenty of recent examples of high profile figures being accused of sexual abuse or assault in China while the Chinese Communist Party allows, or even amplifies, the news. The rape allegations against Canadian-Chinese singer Kris Wu for example were allowed to blow up on Chinese social media and remained a consistent news item for days.
The Wu story, alongside sudden crackdowns by way of almost total erasure from the Chinese internet, of extremely prominent celebrities such as actresses Zhao Wei and Zheng Shuang after various (non-#MeToo) scandals, stand out as the Chinese Communist Party leveraging an opportunity to further their agenda. In this instance the recently intensifying agenda of wiping out the influence of ‘misbehaving celebrities’ that the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) identified as having a ‘chaotic’ effect on society. These are all small cogs in Xi Jinping's larger scale machinations against political dissent, social activism, ideological liberalism and private businesses, which have manifested in all sorts of ways over the past 24 months. The most high profile of which was when Alibaba’s Jack Ma, one of China’s most successful, visible and powerful entrepreneurs, seemed to fall off the face of the earth after giving a controversial speech that criticised the Chinese state’s approach to its financial systems and regulation. This unfolded just before Ma’s Ant Group (which runs Alipay, one of Chinese largest digital payment platforms) was set to go public at the end of 2020. Ma was widely seen to have been firmly reigned in by the CCP in the aftermath of the speech, his Ant Group IPO was scuppered by Chinese regulators wiping $70b off the value of the company, and this set off a chain reaction of events in which Xi Jinping and the CCP sought to reestablish the all-powerful nature of the state over private enterprise and celebrity. The last two years have seen a massive recorrecting of course to a more pure vision of a culturally insular and controlled China.
Peng Shuai and tennis’ dilemma in China
The Peng Shuai story falls much closer to the Jack Ma example than it does the Kris Wu example purely because of what it reveals about the Chinese Communist Party’s goals. Wu, by way of the rape allegations against him, could readily be used by the CCP as propaganda as to why Chinese citizens should stop viewing celebrities as having all-important, cult-like status. The CCP views the modern obsession with celebrity as a corrupting, western distraction from its own goals, and celebrities misbehaving (both trivially and severely) presented an opportunity to stamp out the trend. The Peng Shuai and Jack Ma examples on the other hand both involve criticism of the state itself, or representatives of the state. This would never be tolerated based on Xi Jinping’s and the CCP’s recent rhetoric. While democratic nations in the West like to hold themselves up as countries where dissent, disagreement and the free flow of information are necessary rights in the machine that is individual freedom and autonomy, China largely views such dissent as far too dangerous to its various, overarching causes.
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 a human rights atrocity akin to Nazism. 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 however, 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. China views it as necessary babysitting of what they see as the dark, distracting sides of humanity in its quest for the most productive, pure and successful society possible.
This dichotomy presents interestingly in the case of Peng Shuai. You have China strongly censoring the story, which squashes its domestic spread but at the same time massively amplifies its international spread in the form of the Streisand effect. Peng’s story has now been firmly picked up by international media with tennis players and other figures within the sport also calling for action.
The question now is what can tennis do?
Tennis has been riding the wave of the two-time major winner Li Na effect for some years now. The WTA inked a ten year contract to hold the WTA Finals in Shenzhen starting in 2018 in a deal worth approx $1 billion, the sport’s largest. And while the last two editions have not been able to be held in China due to coronavirus concerns, the current plan is to return to Shenzhen in 2022. The Men’s ATP tour also acknowledges significant financial interests in China with both its Beijing ATP 500 and Shanghai Masters 1000 events known to be particularly lucrative for the tour (with potential expansion plans in place for both). Overall there are dozens of first and second tier tennis events in China, an increasingly important market in the minds of tennis executives.
When contemplating whether to respond to the Peng Shuai situation there are plenty of recent warnings in the form of other sports when thinking about possible ramifications. The NBA, most acutely of all, know the reality of trying to juggle commercial partnerships in such a strategic market with the wildly different ideologies between the United States (the NBA’s domestic focus) and China.
Boston Celtics NBA star Enes Kanter has consistently criticised China’s stance on Taiwan as well as their treatment of Uyghur’s, Tibetan’s, and Hong Kongers. Kanter even directly referenced Xi Jinping as a ‘heartless dictator’.
For the NBA and the Celtics, Kanter's activism has had obvious and swift consequences. Tencent suspended all streams and broadcasts of Celtic’s games and on Weibo a search for "Kanter" provides no results. All Celtics games, both current, past and highlights, are no longer accessible in China.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's support has come only in private to Kanter, who doesn’t exactly feel well supported by the higher ups in his sport:
Kanter’s activism, and sport vs China repercussions, are not new. Kanter’s actions come a year after the NBA as a whole was banned, for an entire year, from being streamed in China after the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, tweeted support for the Hong Kong protesters in 2019. This led several of the NBA’s partners in China to end their broadcasting and sponsorship deals.
Tennis can look around at the NBA et al to understand what may happen should the WTA speak out. Will WTA players who tweet their disapproval of the treatment of Peng Shuai be blocked from having their matches streamed in China? Will they be allowed to play in Shenzhen next year should they qualify? In 2015, the WTA struck a ten year partnership with iQIY, China’s biggest online streaming platform, to show its matches for free. Should the WTA, or any of tennis’ governing bodies speak up, they would be risking the stability of those sorts of sorts of media deals, not to mention the billion dollar Shenzhen contract.
So the question remains, do the WTA and tennis’ other governing bodies have the backbone, or more practically the financial freedom, to risk the loss of these sources of revenue? And the larger, longer-term question for tennis as a whole is whether this sport can swallow its morals to keep the Chinese gravy train of revenue running, or whether a more introspective conversation needs to take place about trying to run many of its largest tournaments in a nation which views ethics through an increasingly divergent lens compared to the nations in which these tennis organisations call home (largely the United States and The United Kingdom). While the NBA have sufficiently deep pockets and ample growth of the sport to ably eat costs like temporary Chinese partnership hitches and media blackouts, tennis, and specifically the WTA, doesn’t have the same level of financial security. It would therefore be quite surprising to see a strong response from the WTA (update: the WTA have now responded, more forcefully than expected), or any organisation within tennis, unless it was already seeking a way to remove itself from an over-reliance on the Chinese market. The replacement city (Guadalajara) for Shenzhen this year for the WTA finals has been a success at least in terms of atmosphere, but it will require an enormous step change of action from the WTA to plot a more permanent change of course.
Above all, let’s hope Peng Shuai is ok, wherever she is.
Normal match analysis back next week.
Top: Visual China Group via Getty Images
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