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Peng Shuai at the Australian Open in Melbourne on January 21 2020. REUTERS/ KIM HONG-JI
Peng Shuai at the Australian Open in Melbourne on January 21 2020. REUTERS/ KIM HONG-JI

Beijing — Tennis star Peng Shuai’s allegation of sexual assault and its aftermath have brought the realities of China’s censorship and secrecy around its leadership to global attention just as Beijing prepares to host the Olympics.

Peng, who was not publicly heard from for nearly three weeks after alleging that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli sexually assaulted her, told International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach on Sunday by video call that she was safe and well.

The Women's Tennis Association (WTA), which has led calls for an investigation into her allegations, remained unconvinced. Some Western governments and top current and former tennis players have called for reassurance that Peng is safe.

While the international furore has been awkward, experts say the priority for an increasingly confident Beijing is avoiding embarrassment at home for the ruling Communist Party and President Xi Jinping, an approach it will probably stick with even as the Olympics puts it on the global stage.

“For some years now, China has responded to negative global attention either by giving an unconvincing explanation, or by stoically pretending the criticism isn’t there,” said Zhang Ming, a retired professor of politics at Renmin University.

The country’s censorship machine has allowed it to suppress the scandal domestically in its tightly controlled cyberspace. Censors quickly deleted Peng’s post on the Twitter-like Weibo on November 2, and the topic remains blocked from direct online discussion, forcing people to use linguistic trickery to work around it.

But Beijing’s attempts to control the narrative have jarred overseas audiences, and the case of Peng — a former Olympian and doubles world number one — has added fuel to calls from rights groups and some politicians for boycotts of the Winter Games in February.

Efforts by Chinese state media journalists to allay concerns on Twitter, including the posting of a purported email from Peng saying, “I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine”, were criticised by the WTA and some rights groups as unconvincing. Twitter is blocked in China and those journalists have not posted the same content on Chinese social media platforms.

Officials in China often speak about how the country must “tell China’s story well” on the global stage, said David Bandurski of the China Media Project, a research organisation in Hong Kong. “In a single stroke, the Peng case has exposed the bankruptcy of these ambitions,” he said.

China’s State Council Information Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

China’s foreign ministry has said Peng’s allegation was not a diplomatic question, despite the concerns raised by the UK, the US, and France.

On Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian urged “certain people” to stop the “malicious hyping” and “politicisation” of the issue.

‘The thing people talked about’

While the Chinese government has been silent on Peng’s allegations, Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, a prominent state media journalist, has continued to comment on the case on Twitter, serving as de facto messenger to the world outside. He has not mentioned Zhang, the former vice-premier, referring only to “the thing people talked about”.

But the episode is adding to calls for an Olympic boycott from rights groups and others already critical of Beijing over its policies in Hong Kong and the treatment of minority Uyghurs in the western region of Xinjiang. President Joe Biden has said the US is considering a diplomatic boycott, meaning no US officials would attend the opening ceremony.

Temporary disappearances from public life after a scrape with authority are not unheard of in China. Alibaba founder Jack Ma disappeared from view for three months after blasting Chinese regulators in a speech last October.

Fan Bingbing, an A-list movie star who appeared in the X-Men and Iron Man franchises, vanished from the public eye for four months in 2019 with no reason given until she was fined more than  $120m by Chinese authorities for evading taxes.

The episode also demonstrated the extreme secrecy surrounding the country’s ruling elite, with few details of their personal lives publicly available. Zhang, who retired from public life in 2018, has not commented on the situation.



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