Sophia* is a tennis fan living in south-west China who seldom misses watching any major tournament.
But she hasn’t heard even a whisper about the scandal engulfing one of the country’s biggest champions — former world number 1 doubles player Peng Shuai.
- News of Peng Shuai’s #MeToo post and her ‘disappearance’ are censored in China
- Videos purport to show she is safe, but many remain sceptical
- Rights groups are calling for an investigation into her sexual assault claims against former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli
While the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai has gone viral in the Twittersphere and has dominated international news headlines in recent weeks, Sophia’s question is not an odd one in China.
Ever since Ms Peng dropped a #MeToo bombshell on social media, accusing China’s former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault, her name and Weibo account have been widely censored in China.
Human rights groups, tennis players and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) responded quickly to her accusation and her sudden “disappearance” from the public eye, expressing strong concerns for her wellbeing.
Beyond China’s Great Firewall – the term for the Chinese Communist Party’s internet censorship that blocks Google, Twitter and Facebook, among others — discussions about her situation have been heated, with many demanding that the government prove she is safe.
Ms Peng has since resurfaced in various media appearances — including in a video chat with the International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach on Sunday, seemingly an attempt to assure the world that she is “safe and well”.
But that video and other glimpses of her, including footage of her dining at a restaurant and an email purportedly from Ms Peng and published by state-run CGTN saying “everything is fine” — have done little to assuage concerns.
How China is concealing a worldwide scandal
Fans like Sophia have been kept in the dark. When she was told the former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion was being censored over a Weibo post, she wondered if Ms Peng had “offended the party again”.
She vaguely recalled that Ms Peng had previously been involved in a dispute in her early career, where she and former Australian Open winner Li Na fought to “fly solo” away from China’s state-run sports apparatus, which has been notorious for creating enormous pressure over athletes’ training regimes.
Although that act of rebellion had once put her in the spotlight in China, her now high-profile “disappearance” has gone largely unnoticed in the country.
The episode shows Beijing is prepared to “respond with a state-media controlled operation aimed to chill any challenge to CCP authority,” according to academics Yan Bennett and John Garrick.
“In Peng’s case, her ‘being disappeared’ appears to be an attempt to kill several birds with one arrow: crush dissent, stem any Chinese #MeToo momentum and instil fear about criticising CCP officials because, as the vanguard of the Communist Party under Xi Jinping Thought, they must always be seen as virtuous,” they wrote for The Conversation.
China’s Foreign Ministry, which has faced repeated questions from international media about Ms Peng, said on Tuesday that the Chinese government hoped “malicious speculation” about her whereabouts would stop.
But this answer was omitted from the summary of their press conference on their website.
Hu Xijin, editor in chief of China’s state-owned tabloid the Global Times, also posted on Twitter — which is unavailable in China — about Ms Peng’s case, but has remained silent on the matter on his Chinese social media accounts.
That’s not to say there is no mention of Peng Shuai on the Chinese internet — there are still rare chats about her on Weibo that have filtered through the CCP’s censorship machine, with some calling for an investigation into her accusation.
One video, from Russian news agency Ruptly, is available in China on Weibo and shows Ms Peng attending an awards ceremony for young Chinese tennis players.
The video’s title referred to Ms Peng as “the tennis player who appeared after turmoil”, puzzling some internet users in China.
One Weibo user called Wuyangleerzheng asked, “What was the turmoil? Can you please explain?”
“Calling on an investigation into the matter, don’t just try to cover it up,” another user, Mr_Huang312, commented.
Many others responding to the video wondered how Ruptly had not been “invited for tea” — a euphemism for being questioned by Chinese police — for their post.
Calls for investigation in a ‘parallel universe’
The CCP’s starkly different media approaches to Ms Peng’s case — depending on whether it was for a domestic or foreign audience — came as no surprise to China watchers.
But the strategy wasn’t working, according to Natasha Kassam, director of the Lowy Institute’s Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program, who has been following the case closely.
China’s domestic efforts to control the conversation have been mostly successful, Ms Kassam said, but people are still hearing about it and know that they’re not able to talk about it.
A WTA spokesperson has said while it was good to see Ms Peng in the video with Mr Bach, it didn’t “alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her wellbeing and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion.”
“This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern.”
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said that “assertions about her wellbeing need to come directly from her, unfiltered through the state-controlled media or peculiar, IOC-backed propaganda exercises”.
“If Chinese authorities want to substantiate her — or anyone else’s freedom — perhaps refrain from deleting their social media posts?”
Amnesty International’s China researcher Alkan Akad said the Chinese government “has so far shown no indication that they have treated Peng Shuai’s allegations of sexual assault seriously, let alone launched a proper and effective investigation into them”.
Ms Kassam echoed that sentiment, saying it would be useful for the Chinese system to work towards a fair and transparent way of dealing with sexual assault cases.
“There’s a parallel universe where Peng’s claim is taken seriously and dealt with transparently … and it’s not at all seen as a threat to stability or to their political power,” she said.
In going public with her #MeToo allegations, Ms Peng alerted international media to her plight.
But Sophia said she didn’t think it would result in a positive outcome for Ms Peng’s case — not just because of the apparent censorship, but also because Ms Peng and her sport don’t have a high profile in China.
“After all, tennis is not as popular here as abroad I guess. Many of my colleagues who are not into tennis don’t even know who Peng Shuai is,” she said.
*Sophia is a pseudonym to protect her identity.