Content warning: This article contains mention of sexual assault and rape.
On Nov. 2, 2021, Chinese tennis pro Peng Shuai took to Weibo — a Chinese microblogging site — to recount her alleged sexual assault at the hands of high-ranking Chinese Communist Party (CCP) member and former vice premier of China, Zhang Gaoli.
The post was removed after about 20 minutes and Peng’s account was suspended.
After an international outcry, Chinese state media released what they claim was an email from Peng to Women’s Tennis Association CEO Steve Simon, but the note’s authenticity was questioned.
China Global Television Network, the state’s international media platform, said Peng wrote directly to Steve Simon but the email inexplicably addressed “everyone.” In a screenshot of the letter, a cursor is visible, raising questions about when and where this email originated.
Simon himself doubted its authenticity. “Whether she was coerced into writing it, someone wrote it for her, we don’t know,” Simon told CNN. “But at this point I don’t think there’s any validity in it and we won’t be comfortable until we have a chance to speak with her.”
Chinese state media then released a few photos of Peng, heightening concerns that the tennis star is not, in fact, free. Those concerns seem to be widely shared, except for one glaring exception — the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The IOC and CCP are acting as one
According to the Olympic Charter, the IOC is supposed to be working toward a “peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” When push came to shove, however, the IOC rushed to the CCP’s defence, publicly accepting the regime’s email as proof that Peng was safe and free. IOC President Thomas Bach even participated in a video call with Peng.
Since Nov. 2, Peng hasn’t been asked about the alleged sexual assault — as if it was erased from the narrative. As Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch explained, the IOC is now “actively playing a role in the Chinese government’s enforced disappearance, coercion and propaganda machinery.”
The IOC and CCP now appear to be acting as one. Any hope for the “preservation of human dignity” at the 2022 Beijing Olympics is gone.
Totalitarian China and violence against women
Mao Tse Tung famously stated “women hold up half the sky,” but male domination has been the norm in China. Its political system is totalitarian and patriarchal, standing in stark opposition to the nation’s growing, and thoroughly suppressed, feminist movement.
In China, discrimination against women is rampant and institutionalized. What Peng alleged she experienced is familiar to many Chinese women.
The CCP uses International Women’s Day as an opportunity to identify, harass and detain feminist activists. In 2015, a group of activists known as the Feminist Five — Li Maizi, Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan, Wei Tingting and Wang Man — were detained for 37 days just for planning to give out anti-sexual harassment stickers on public transport during the event.
The social media accounts for the group Feminist Voices have also attracted the ire of the CCP. In 2015, Feminist Voices launched a campaign protesting China’s annual Spring Festival Gala on Chinese Central Television, securing 1,300 signatures before being censored.
In Xinjiang, where Muslim women are held for so-called “re-education,” rape remains a common means of torture and coercion. Tursunay Ziawudun, who spent nine months in a camp there, told the BBC that “women were removed from the cells ‘every night’ and raped by one or more masked Chinese men.”
This has been verified by former camp physician and teacher Sayragul Sauytbay, who told reporters that guards rape women in full view of other detainees in hopes of coercing confessions.
It’s time for the governments to take action
It is morally and politically wrong to let Beijing host the Olympic Games. Silence is complicity, but endorsement — by actually sending athletes to the Games — is something much worse.
Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and many other high-profile athletes are speaking out in support of Peng, but they need the backing of world governments to help prevent what stands to be the worst case of sport-washing human rights violations since the Nazis hosted the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
To many human rights activists, the disappearance of Peng further underlines the need for an international boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. The CCP’s assaults on democracy activists in China and Hong Kong deserve more than wilful blindness.