China’s playbook when confronted with criticism is neither crafty nor subtle: Deny, lie, play dumb, hope it goes away and, when all else fails, strike back ferociously. It’s all happening again in the case of Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star who crossed swords with the state by publicly accusing a former senior Politburo member of sexual assault.
After making the allegations in a Nov. 2 post on China’s popular Weibo social media platform, Ms. Peng vanished. Beijing’s disinformation machinery went into overdrive: Her charges disappeared from her social media account, and her name appeared to be blocked in searches. Foreign Ministry spokesmen insisted they were unaware of any sexual assault allegations, and questions and answers about Ms. Peng were omitted from official transcripts.
On Wednesday, Chinese state media published what it claimed was a screenshot of an email sent by Ms. Peng to the Women’s Tennis Association, saying that the allegations were untrue and “everything is fine.” This defies belief, and China must not be allowed to get away with it.
The professional tennis world has reacted with admirable and unequivocal ferocity. Steve Simon, the executive director of the W.T.A., demanded an investigation into Ms. Peng’s allegations. He declared that he is ready to pull the tour out of China. The governing body of men’s tennis, the Association of Tennis Professionals, joined in, with a statement declaring that it was “deeply concerned,” and a chorus of tennis players, including Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, issued expressions of shock and concern. The United Nations called for an investigation with “full transparency,” and the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said the Biden administration calls for “verifiable proof” of Ms. Peng’s whereabouts.
All of this poses a serious challenge to China’s ruling Communist Party. Ms. Peng, 35, is not an obscure dissident. She is the only Chinese tennis player to have attained a world No. 1 ranking, in her case in women’s doubles, and she was once heralded by the Chinese government as a model athlete — “like a breeze in women’s tennis,” as The People’s Daily wrote in 2013.
That breeze has become a scorching blast. In the closed and controlled world of Chinese politics, members of the political hierarchy are off limits to public criticism of any kind. When senior officials have been accused of sexual assault or other misconduct, it has usually been in the context of their purge from the hierarchy of the party. Ms. Peng’s target, Zhang Gaoli, by contrast, is a retired vice premier and member of the highest body in China, the Politburo Standing Committee.
The charges come as Beijing prepares to host the Winter Olympics next February. The notion of allowing a country that brutally represses critics and entire minorities to again host the Olympics has already drawn sharp questioning. President Biden said Thursday that the United States was considering keeping American officials away from the Games, and Human Rights Watch asked the International Olympic Committee’s major corporate sponsors to explain how they intend to use their leverage to address human rights abuses in China.
China’s response has been the usual mantra about keeping sports and politics separate. That is also the International Olympic Committee’s sad and typically self-serving bleat. Politics and the Olympics have long been inextricably intertwined. That was particularly the case in Communist countries like the Soviet Union and East Germany that saw Olympic gold medals as a validation of their legitimacy and prowess and were prepared to cheat to get them. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has kept that legacy alive.
In itself, Ms. Peng’s case is not about geopolitics or the Olympics. It’s about an athlete being disappeared for leveling a credible #MeToo accusation against a man who wielded significant power and, in her telling, exploited that power to demand sexual favors. Even on that level, it is hard to see how the I.O.C. can willingly close its eyes to the suppression of a world-ranked athlete as thousands of athletes from every corner of the world are about to descend on China.
Like so many victims of China’s repressive system, Ms. Peng has done nothing other than to seek redress for a wrong. Yet the very straightforwardness of her plight inevitably leads to fundamental questions about China’s fitness to host a global sporting event that purports to follow an Olympic ideal of building a better world through sport.
That is why it is essential to demand a reckoning from Beijing: Where is Ms. Peng, and what is being done about her allegations?