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Silencing Peng Shuai: The Bigger Picture

Roar writer Justine Noble on Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai in a long history of censorship in China.

Back in November, renowned Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai released a social media post accusing Zhang Gaoli, former Chinese Vice-Premier, of “forcing” her to have sex at his house after she visited to play tennis while they were in a romantic relationship. In her post directed towards Mr Zhang on Weibo, a Chinese social network resembling Twitter, Ms Peng stated, “That afternoon I didn’t give my consent and couldn’t stop crying. You brought me to your house and forced me and you to have relations”. Her allegation of sexual assault made history as the first of its kind to ever be directed against a senior political leader in China.

Aware of what she was up against, Ms Peng further said, “I know that someone of your eminence, Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ll say that you’re not afraid, but even if it’s just striking a stone with a pebble, or a moth attacking a flame and courting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you”.

And court self-destruction Ms Peng did. Following her post, the public did not hear or see her for weeks on end. However, on November 17, Chinese state media outlet CGTN uploaded an email to its Twitter page it said was sent by the tennis player to the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Chairman and CEO, Steve Simon. In this email, Ms Peng allegedly stated that her Weibo accusations against Mr Zhang were “not true”. Days later, three pictures of the tennis star were posted on an account under her name on WeChat, a popular Chinese multi-function social network, captioned with the words “Happy Weekend”. Many doubt that these photos were truly posted by Ms Peng herself. The “evidence” for Ms Peng’s safety additionally consisted of an editor of a Communist Party-run newspaper posting videos of her dining out and going to a tennis event in Beijing as well as the International Olympic Committee President saying he had a video call with her.

However, none of these efforts by the Chinese government to confirm Ms Peng’s wellbeing has quelled the anxiety the WTA has expressed over her freedom of speech and expression. They have subsequently asked that Beijing investigate her allegations. Their concerns are shared with the heads of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. On December 1st, all tennis tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, were cancelled. The Biden administration and the United Nations human rights office have also demanded to see evidence of Ms Peng’s safety. Whilst “she” kept asserting her safety and freedom to the public, there is little to nothing that she can say or do that will convince those worrying that she did not take back her allegation under government coercion.

The story of Peng Shuai, however, is merely a chapter in China’s long history of censorship. Silencing dissent or anything interpreted as criticism for that matter, against the country’s ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is intrinsic to its totalitarian governance. The common use of intimidation and arm-twisting in these cases painfully indicates human rights groups are not misguided to fear for Ms Peng’s safety. This paints a dark bigger picture: Peng Shuai’s disappearance shook the world due to her celebrity status, but what about the everyday people who suffered a similar fate? No one asked where they were. No one asked what happened to them.

Moreover, if that’s the case, why is it only when the safety of an international sports star is jeopardized that the threats of Western governments become more serious? While it’s commendable that the United States and Australia have said their government officials and diplomats will not be attending the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, I find it hard not to question why the Olympics can even be held in China in the first place. There is no pretending freedom of speech exists in China. There is no denying that without real pressure, this is unlikely to change. Perhaps the West only expressed “concern” for Ms Peng out of their own self-interest; to appease those of their citizens who truly do care so they can continue business as usual. Indeed, with their own athletes still planning to attend the games while they still go forward, the West has put a pathetic excuse for pressure on China. Suppressing political freedom is evil, but are show politics much better?

And I’m not just up in arms about one tennis player. China’s authoritarian regime isn’t blatantly authoritarian every now and again, it’s blatantly authoritarian all the time. Just a few weeks ago, Hong Kong universities began taking down monuments commemorating the victims of the violent crackdown on the pro-democracy riots that took place on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. In mainland China, commemorating, let alone mentioning the Tiananmen Square massacre is taboo. The disappearance of the massacre memorials comes as China continuously erodes the freedom of its semi-autonomous territories, Hong Kong and Macao, prohibiting candle-light vigils for the massacre over the last two years. Eventually, just as in mainland China, the violent suppression of democracy will be absent from Hong Kong’s history.

In other words, Orwell’s 1984 is as frighteningly applicable to modern China just as it was to European totalitarian regimes in the mid-20th century. Considering we often learn about censorship and the rewriting of history it requires in history class, if at all, maybe we should be asking ourselves: why are Hitler and Stalin demonized in history books but when it comes to regimes like today’s China, we turn a blind eye? Again, it seems the West’s economic relationship with China is more important than democracy and human rights. The West continues to preach about these values over and over again but consistently shows that beyond its own borders, they hardly matter. At least China doesn’t contradict itself and pretends to care when it doesn’t.

In short, we have to be careful not to view the world in complete black and white. While what happened to Peng Shuai is abhorrent and demands justice, a deeper look at her case challenges us to re-think who the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ really are. There is no beauty in authoritarianism, yes, but a critical eye towards the West warns us of discrepancies between what they preach and what they practice. Perhaps the way we think and feel here in the UK is controlled as well, just in ways less ruthless and obvious.

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