Peng Shuai and the High Stakes of Business in China
When Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis star, posted on Chinese social media, on November 2nd, about her relationship with Zhang Gaoli, a former vice-premier of China and a member of the Politburo, she did not hide her despair or her foreboding. Peng’s voice was raw and unsparing, even of herself. She alleged that Gaoli had raped her at his home, and described the painful complexity of the relationship that, she said, followed that encounter. She wrote that they had had a similar relationship years before. She had no proof, she wrote, “just the real experiences of twisted, ruined me.”
Over the years, other high-ranking Chinese officials have been accused of misconduct, but only in Party purges. Peng, who had reached world No. 1 as a doubles player and had won two Grand Slam doubles championships, had been hailed as a hero—the country’s “golden flower,” as one state-sponsored newspaper put it. She was taking an unprecedented risk, and it seemed she knew what might come of it. “Even if I’m an egg throwing myself at a rock, even if I’m a moth flying at a flame, courting my own destruction,” she wrote, “I will still speak the truth of us.”
The post was up for about ten minutes before the state’s well-oiled machinery of censorship kicked into gear and took it down. Comments on Peng’s account were locked. Screenshots of her sixteen-hundred-word post, which were spreading, were scrubbed. Her name disappeared from Internet searches. Emojis and words related to the case did, too. For a while, even the word “tennis” was blocked. Behind the state’s erasure of Peng’s presence on the Chinese Internet was another urgent and troubling question: What would happen to her?
Everyone at the Women’s Tennis Association was worried. Their attempts to reach Peng through her contacts and through diplomatic channels failed. On November 14th, nearly two weeks after Peng’s initial post, Steve Simon, the chairman and C.E.O. of the W.T.A., gave an interview to the Times’ Christopher Clarey. His organization had been assured that Peng was safe, Simon said, but that wasn’t enough. The Chinese government needed to prove and guarantee Peng’s safety, and launch an investigation into her allegations. He also called on China to end censorship on the subject. Otherwise, he said, “we would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China if that’s what it came to.” Over the next few days, in interviews with CNN and in other public statements, Simon reiterated the tour’s position. “Our absolute and unwavering priority is the health and safety of our players. We are speaking out so justice can be done,” he said.
It is hard to overstate the push the W.T.A. has made into China over the past decade, ever since Li Na won the French Open title, in 2011, with a hundred and sixteen million people in China watching on television. In 2019, the tour had nine events in the country, including its crown jewel, the World Tour Finals. A few years ago, Simon boasted of China’s “billion dollar” investment in the sport: the gleaming new stadiums that dotted the country and the stupendously large purses. (The fourteen million dollars in prize money for the W.T.A. Finals dwarfed the nine million dollars committed to the Association of Tennis Professionals’ parallel event for men.) China’s buy-in opened up new markets and opportunities for the tour—Jon Wertheim, of Sports Illustrated, reported that “at least one-third” of the W.T.A.’s revenue came from China, a figure heralded as symbolically significant. Founded on the principles of gender equality, the W.T.A. had long foregrounded the fight for equal pay. It became possible, or convenient, to confuse the rights with the money. In discussing the decision to move the Tour Finals to Shenzhen, in 2019, Simon said, “There was a true commitment here, trying to do something about ‘walking the walk’ when it comes to women’s empowerment.”
But it was clear that the Chinese government was, above all, interested in its own empowerment. Only weeks before those 2019 finals took place, the stadium grounds in Shenzhen were filled with tanks and used for military exercises to send a message to civilians protesting in Hong Kong, only a short drive away. China had a history of censoring its people; it was a core tenet of governance in that country. The major corporations that did business in the country—Nike, Google, Facebook, Apple, the N.B.A.—had to accept it. Few did not fall in line.
This situation with Peng, though, seemed like a reckoning: At a time of financial difficulty, the W.T.A. was willing to give up all that revenue in China if the government did not meet the association’s demands. A state-affiliated Twitter account, which is not viewable within China, released an “email” that, it claimed, Peng Shuai had sent to the W.T.A. “I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine,” the text read. It also refuted the accusations of sexual assault. Simon was not appeased. “The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” he said. Over the next few days, the state coördinated several more “sightings” of Peng: a video taken at a restaurant, in which the obviously canned dialogue established that the date was November 20th; another video of her signing autographs at a youth tennis tournament in Beijing. Simon maintained that he would not be convinced of her safety until he’d talked to her privately. Meanwhile, Peng’s well-being had become a matter of international significance. The U.N. released a statement in support of Peng. The White House spoke of its concern and demanded justice.
Then, on Sunday, came the news that the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, had spoken with Peng. Also on the video call were Emma Terho, who chairs the I.O.C. athletes’ commission; and Li Lingwei, an I.O.C. member and Chinese Tennis Association official (and herself a former high-ranking Communist Party official). Afterward, the I.O.C. released a statement along with a photo of the call. It said Peng stated “that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time. That is why she prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now.” The statement did not address any need for an investigation into Peng’s allegations, as the W.T.A. had called for. Given how important the Olympics are to China, the statement had the air of a publicity stunt. That set up a stark contrast between the two sporting organizations.
It was once possible to believe that hosting the Olympics—an event dedicated to peace, respect, and fair play—would put pressure on China to curb its human-rights abuses, but the success of the 2008 Beijing Games only seems to have emboldened the Chinese government. The I.O.C. had no trouble pursuing and placating repressive regimes, particularly given the exorbitant price tags and punishing infrastructure demands that hosting the Games requires. In a matter of only months, the torch in Beijing is set to be lit, heralding the start of the 2022 Winter Games. Bach is hardly the man to rock the boat. “Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature,” the I.O.C. had said in a statement before the video call with Peng. “This explains why the I.O.C. will not comment any further at this stage.” The call itself was, apparently, the fruit of that “quiet diplomacy.”
“The information released has a comforting effect for people who are waiting to look for excuses,” Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist activist, told me. But it hardly meant that Peng was out of danger, whether financially or in the form of security concerns for her family, the restriction of her movements, or myriad other ways in which the state can keep a person within a kind of cage. “It appears that the only response to the global concern is to keep controlling Peng Shuai,” Lü said.
It is also possible that Peng will more credibly disavow the post, which appeared to have been written in a moment of desperation and anger. She may not want the scrutiny of an investigation. She may even express regret. Peng is not an activist; before her long post about Zhang, many of her Weibo postings featured nationalistic emojis and flags. Even if Peng’s story recedes from public view, though, the effects of her allegations could be long-lasting—certainly for the W.T.A. It is almost impossible to imagine that China will acquiesce to the W.T.A.’s demands for a fair and uncensored investigation into a former high-ranking official, and so it appears that the tour’s presence there, for the time being, is done. The pandemic had cancelled two years’ worth of tournaments, leaving the tour scrambling to find new venues. But the full stadiums and the resounding success of the finals in Guadalajara this year, even with a comparatively minuscule purse, present evidence that the tour is surviving, and even thriving. Even if it is diminished financially, one could argue, it is strengthened by a commitment to its core principles.
That argument won’t be an easy line to hold. The W.T.A. is an international tour, and there are repressive regimes and censorship beyond China. The tour holds events in St. Petersburg and Doha; before Shenzhen, the W.T.A. Finals took place in Singapore. An uncompromising stance on Peng could also make it more difficult for the W.T.A. to avoid other questions of injustice and misconduct—including those pertaining to its allies. (The men’s tour, the A.T.P., which has strongly backed the W.T.A.’s stance on Peng, did not have a policy on sexual misconduct until a few months ago, and took almost a year to announce its own investigation into accusations of domestic violence against Alexander Zverev, one of its top players.) Still—unlike the I.O.C., the N.B.A., or any number of global corporations—the W.T.A. refused to hide behind platitudes about the unifying power of sport or other self-justifications when it came to Peng. It testified to a real concern for its players and their rights that few of its peer organizations ever fully show.