Outcry Grows As China Breaks Silence On Missing Tennis Star
Chinese state media broke its two-week silence on the whereabouts of tennis star Peng Shuai, but the effort to knock down her allegations of an affair with a former Communist Party leader were met with skepticism from supporters. Outcry Grows As China Breaks Silence On Missing Tennis Star
Chinese state broadcaster CGTN on Thursday posted a letter attributed to Peng on its Twitter account. “I am not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine,” the letter said, adding that her purported allegations of sexual assault were “not true.”
The scandal comes at a sensitive time for China, with President Xi Jinping’s government preparing to host athletes and other dignitaries from around the globe at the Winter Olympics starting in February. Party factions are also vying for key positions ahead of a twice-a-decade party congress next year, at which Xi is expected to secure a precedent-breaking third term.
I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent. Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time. #whereispengshuaipic.twitter.com/GZG3zLTSC6
International pressure had been mounting for China to clarify Peng’s safety. Grand Slam champions Novak Djokovic, Naomi Osaka and Chris Evert expressed concern over her case this week, while the Women’s Tennis Association’s head Steve Simon called for an investigation into her allegations.
He separately told the New York Times the group might reconsider its operations in China, including 11 tournaments, if it didn’t see a sufficient response.
Simon dismissed the CGTN letter as unsatisfactory: “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” he said in a statement.
China has a history of issuing coerced statements on behalf of detained individuals — authorities released a confession from Hong Kong pro-democracy protester Simon Cheng after he was detained in mainland China in 2019, which he subsequently disavowed.
Peng went silent after posting a 1,500-character essay to her verified account on China’s Twitter-like Weibo earlier this month detailing a turbulent, decade-long sexual relationship with the party’s former No. 7 official, Zhang Gaoli.
The post and discussion about it were subsequently scrubbed from social media, and Bloomberg News hasn’t been able to independently verify that it came from her.
China’s Public Security Ministry and General Administration of Sport haven’t replied to Bloomberg’s questions on Peng. And the Foreign Ministry has sidestepped the issue, with spokesman Zhao Lijian saying for the fourth consecutive day Thursday that he didn’t know about the case.
“My answer is very simple: This is not a diplomatic question,” Zhao told reporters at a regular news briefing in Beijing. “I am not aware of the situation you mentioned.”
Notably, the letter was published by CGTN, China’s international-facing, English-language broadcaster, suggesting it was intended for foreign consumption. Mareike Ohlberg, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program, said that while Chinese propaganda organs often failed to communicate convincingly with foreign audiences, there was “more at play here.”
“Messages like these are meant as a demonstration of power,” Ohlberg wrote. “It’s not meant to convince people, but to intimidate and demonstrate the power of the state.”
Xiaowen Liang, a Chinese feminist, activist and lawyer based in New York, questioned why information about the case hadn’t been made available in China, where Peng’s Weibo account, which has about 570,000 followers, has had its comment function turned off. “They understand how serious this issue is and that’s why they’re censoring in such a bad way,” Liang said, referring to the Chinese authorities.
China’s Communist Party officially bans cadres from having extramarital relationships, and its discipline watchdog often cites such conduct when charging senior officials with corruption. Questions about whether Peng was abused in the relationship make the case particularly explosive.
China has sought to keep #MeToo uproar from spreading inside its borders. Earlier this year, a former intern at state broadcaster CCTV, who lost her civil suit against a TV host she accused of sexual assault, said her social media accounts were suspended.
Despite the challenges women in China face in having accusations of sexual misconduct heard, Liang said they had been “inspired and empowered” by the #MeToo movement.
“You can censor one,” she said, “but the next day another person speaks up.”
Serena Williams ‘Devastated’ Over China Tennis Star Peng Shuai
Serena Williams has become the latest tennis great to speak up in support of Chinese player Peng Shuai, who hasn’t appeared in public since publishing allegations of an affair with a retired top official.
“I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai,” Williams wrote to her 10.7 million Twitter followers. “I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.”
Williams said she was “sending love” to Peng and her family “during this incredibly difficult time,” before signing off with the hashtag #whereispengshuai. The post had received more than 40,000 likes and 11,000 retweets as of Friday morning in Beijing.
I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent. Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time. #whereispengshuaipic.twitter.com/GZG3zLTSC6
The call for support from arguably the best known player in women’s tennis came a day after Chinese state media circulated a letter attributed to Peng, saying that she was “safe” and “resting.” Women’s Tennis Association Chairman Steve Simon said he had a “hard time believing” the email was written by Peng or on her behalf.
In an interview Thursday with CNN, Simon reaffirmed the WTA’s willingness to cease operations in China if Peng wasn’t accounted for. “We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it,” he said, adding that “this is bigger than the business.”
Other top tennis figures including Naomi Osaka, Novak Djokovic and Chris Evert have expressed shock over Peng’s case.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian reiterated in a news briefing Thursday in Beijing that the ministry wasn’t aware of the situation and that it wasn’t a diplomatic matter. There was no mention of Peng in the ministry’s official readout.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper, separately played down concerns about Peng’s wellbeing in a cryptic tweet that underscored the political sensitivity of the matter. “As a person who is familiar with Chinese system, I don’t believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for the thing people talked about,” Hu said.
As a person who is familiar with Chinese system, I don’t believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for the thing people talked about.
Women’s Tennis Takes On China With Threat To Pull Its Business
WTA chief executive Steve Simon has threatened to pull the tour out of the country following the disappearance of Peng Shuai.
Nothing in Steve Simon’s career as a tennis promoter prepared him for the crisis he is suddenly faced with this month: a player’s disappearance that has forced his organization, the Women’s Tennis Association, into a standoff with the Chinese government.
But the string of events since a post on the social media account of a Chinese player named Peng Shuai accused one the country’s most senior retired officials of sexual assault has placed Simon, the head of the WTA, in an unexpected role. He is the rare sports executive willing to quit one of the most lucrative foreign markets on the planet.
Simon has accused China of lying to him about Peng’s safety amid mounting international outrage, and he has indicated that he understands the stakes.
“We’re at a crossroads with our relationship, obviously, with China,” Simon said in a televised interview with CNN on Thursday. “We’re definitely willing to pull our business, and deal with all the complications that come with it, because this is bigger than the business.”
Peng has been unheard from since a Nov. 2 post on her verified account on the Twitter -like Weibo platform that accused former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. The post disappeared after roughly 20 minutes, and searches for her name on popular Chinese social-media platforms have been blocked ever since. Zhang has not addressed the allegation publicly and cannot be reached.
Earlier this week, Simon received an email saying that the accusation was untrue and that Peng was safe. China’s state broadcaster, which posted a screenshot of the email, said Peng had written it. Simon told CNN that he doubted that and now believes it was not written by her, or that she may have been coerced into writing it.
He had earlier received assurances from the Chinese Tennis Association that she wasn’t in danger, but said he couldn’t corroborate them.
China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Simon’s remarks.
Peng, 35, is a two-time winner of Grand Slam doubles titles and rose as high as No. 14 in the world singles rankings in 2014. Chinese state media in those days called her one of the country’s “golden flowers” in tennis.
This week, her name became the foundation of the hashtag #whereispengshuai, which is being used by athletes around the world. The most prominent message yet came from Serena Williams on Thursday afternoon, though she didn’t make any direct mention of China.
“I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai,” she wrote on Twitter. “I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.”
Other sports organizations have run afoul of China in recent years, but none has said it was prepared to abandon the market altogether. In 2019, the National Basketball Association lost hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the league’s commissioner, following a firestorm caused by a tweet by then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in support of anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
Games were pulled from streaming services and sponsors fled and the league has moved cautiously in China ever since.
The English Premier League also saw a handful of Arsenal games pulled from the Chinese internet and television after midfielder Mesut Özil criticized China over its treatment of ethnic minority Muslims. Coverage quietly resumed, but Özil is no longer an Arsenal player.
With revenues that hover around $100 million a year, according to financial filings, the Florida-based WTA doesn’t rival either organization—the NBA or the Premier League—for size or wealth. And yet, women’s tennis could become the first to sever ties entirely, despite China’s becoming one of the WTA’s favorite and most profitable destinations.
In 2018, Simon helped the tour sign a 10-year deal that was due to put the WTA Finals in China every year until 2028 and double the prize purse to $14 million, making it one of the rare women’s sporting events to pay players more than its counterpart on the men’s side.
And until Covid postponements wreaked havoc on the schedule, there were 11 Chinese tournaments on the calendar—although the tour didn’t visit any of them this year due to border closures. In 2019, the tour’s most recent complete season, the WTA went to China nine times, making up roughly one-seventh of all tour-level events.
The organization also relies on support from Chinese sponsors, counting the Beijing-based streaming service iQiyi as one of its four global partners, alongside the likes of Porsche and the German software company SAP.
Yet Simon and the tour’s players have been unequivocal in their support of Peng.
“The circuit survived this year without a swing through Asia, even if there’s a lot of money there,” the veteran player Alizé Cornet said in an interview with the French sports daily L’Equipe. “That might reassure us that we could survive without the Chinese part of the tour. If we had to split from it at some point because it doesn’t match our values, then we still have to do it, even if we lose something financially.”
The choice facing the WTA now is a stark one, since Simon’s entire career was geared to helping women’s tennis make money. He joined the Indian Wells tournament in California’s Coachella Valley in 1989 to sell tickets and ads.
And after he became tournament director in 2004, he was credited with growing its prize money and reputation enough to make it the most prestigious women’s tennis event outside of the four majors. Indian Wells was sold to billionaire Larry Ellison in 2009 and is now known as the BNP Paribas Open.
Simon’s greatest moment of highwire diplomacy during his 11 years in charge came in 2015, when he negotiated Serena Williams’s first appearance at Indian Wells after a 14-year boycott due to racist taunts she had heard from crowds there early in her career.
“When I returned to Indian Wells this year,” Williams said at the time, “Steve could not have been more helpful, professional and supportive. I know how much he cares about the opinions of the players. He’s a good listener and he has our best interests in mind.”
In dealing with China, Simon has kept his focus on Peng’s well-being and avoided straying into politics. But the political conversation has come to him, as China hawks in the U.S. Congress stepped up their attacks on Beijing’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in February. Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, on Thursday called for a total U.S. boycott of the Games, citing among his reasons his fears that the U.S. couldn’t keep them safe from Chinese surveillance “or even hostage-taking.”
Cotton’s aides later issued a statement tying the call to Peng Shuai. “If the Chinese Communists disappear their own athletes, just think how much less they’ll care for the safety of ours,” his statement said.
Aides to Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, said she was preparing to send a letter about Peng’s case to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. They said the letter will state that, in light of Peng’s disappearance, it is impossible to feel confident that athletes will be protected if they attend the Olympics in Beijing.
Pictures of Peng Shuai Circulate As Fears For Athlete Mount
Photos and videos purportedly of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai circulated on social media, as the White House joined the international tennis community in questioning the whereabouts of the player who disappeared from public view.
In two of the three photos on WeChat, a smiling Peng in a white Adidas T-shirt and black shorts sat barefoot on the floor of a room full of soft toys as she played with a cat. In the third, she took a selfie while holding a stuffed Kung Fu Panda toy. The photos and a screenshot of Peng saying “happy weekend” were shared by a friend and posted to Twitter by Shen Shiwei, whose LinkedIn profile lists him as an international news editor and columnist at Chinese state media outlet CGTN.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper, said in a tweet that his sources confirmed the photos were of Peng’s “current state.” And in subsequent tweets, he said he acquired two video clips, one of which he said shows Peng having dinner with her coach and friends on Saturday night in Beijing.
Peng hasn’t been heard from since earlier this month, when she posted allegations against former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, saying he’d pressured her to have sex. That silence has triggered a global hashtag movement — #whereispengshuai — appealing for her safety, and given impetus to talk of a boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Top tennis stars including Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka have weighed in, demanding that Peng — a two-time Grand Slam champion in doubles — be allowed to speak freely about what happened to her. The Women’s Tennis Association continued to express its concern on Saturday, noting that Peng’s situation remains unclear and that the organization is still considering suspending operations in China.
“It remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference,” Chief Executive Officer Steve Simon said in a statement. “This video alone is insufficient.”
I acquired two video clips, which show Peng Shuai was having dinner with her coach and friends in a restaurant. The video content clearly shows they are shot on Saturday Beijing time. pic.twitter.com/HxuwB5TfBk
A spokesperson for the United Nations Human Rights Office has also demanded proof of Peng’s whereabouts and wellbeing.
In a briefing to reporters on Friday, as cited by CNN, Liz Throssell said, “According to available information, the former world doubles No. 1 hasn’t been heard from publicly since she alleged on social media that she was sexually assaulted. We would stress that it is important to know where she is and know her state, know about her wellbeing.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about reports that Peng has gone missing, and asked that Chinese authorities provide “independent and verifiable proof of her whereabouts and that she is safe.”
Peng, 35, earlier this month posted a 1,500-word essay on Chinese social-media service Weibo detailing her turbulent relationship with Zhang, 75. The essay was later erased and her social media account has gone quiet.
Earlier in the week, CGTN released what it said was an email from Peng disavowing her affair claims and saying she was “safe” and “resting.” Its authenticity has been questioned by many, including the WTA.
Peng Shuai’s WeChat moments just posted three latest photos and said “Happy weekend”. Her friend shared the three photos and the screenshot of Peng’s WeChat moments. pic.twitter.com/tut8CEH6gu
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has deflected frequent questions about the case, claiming to be unaware of the situation and arguing it wasn’t a diplomatic matter.
In the background of one of the latest images circulating of Peng, there’s a framed photograph of what appears to be the athlete posing with a giant Winnie the Pooh mascot. Images of Winnie the Pooh are considered sensitive on Chinese social media, where the cartoon character has been used as an unflattering proxy for President Xi Jinping.
Some are treating the latest WeChat images with skepticism. Nathan Ruser, a researcher with ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre, posted to Twitter doubting the authenticity of the account, pointing out that it used a “default profile and banner photo and no account history.”
“So embarrassing how clumsy this propaganda push is,” he wrote.
Chinese Tennis Star Peng Shuai Appears In Beijing Amid Assault Claim
Takes part in video meeting with International Olympic Committee president hours after footage shows her attending tennis tournament.
Chinese tennis pro Peng Shuai took part in a video meeting with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach on Sunday, amid a global uproar following a Nov. 2 post on her social-media account accusing one of the Communist Party’s most senior retired leaders of sexual assault.
The call came hours after she made her first public appearance in more than two weeks at a competition in Beijing organized by the state-backed China Open on Sunday morning. Ms. Peng’s absence from public view since the accusation has sparked an outpouring of concern for her well-being from fellow athletes and the Women’s Tennis Association.
The IOC’s contact with her comes as it prepares to stage the Beijing 2022 Olympics in February, an event that already has drawn plenty of criticism for China over various issues, including the country’s treatment of ethnic minority Muslims.
“I was relieved to see that Peng Shuai was doing fine, which was our main concern. She appeared to be relaxed. I offered her our support and to stay in touch at any time of her convenience, which she obviously appreciated,” said IOC Athletes’ Commission chair Emma Terho, who also joined the 30-minute call.
The IOC added that Ms. Peng was safe at home in Beijing and asked for privacy in the wake of the sexual-assault accusation, which the organization didn’t address. The call came at the IOC’s request and was set up through the Chinese Olympic Committee, according to a person familiar with the exchange.
In photos and a video posted on the China Open’s verified account on the Twitter-like Weibo platform hours before the IOC call, Ms. Peng shared a stage at Beijing’s National Tennis Center with several sports executives as an official guest at a youth match organized by the tournament. China Open is overseen by China’s Sports Bureau and the Beijing municipal government.
The photos and video didn’t show Ms. Peng speaking or otherwise addressing the sexual-abuse allegation. Instead, they showed her smiling and signing oversize tennis balls for the young players. Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the state-run tabloid Global Times, and his colleagues, shared the same footage on Twitter. A day earlier, Mr. Hu said in another tweet that Ms. Peng had been free at home and would attend public events soon.
The new footage of Ms. Peng was the latest in a weekend stream of photos and videos posted by Chinese state-media journalists on their Twitter accounts purporting to show the tennis star living a normal life following a flood of questions about her whereabouts and safety from some of the world’s biggest tennis stars, including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Andy Murray.
The footage marked Ms. Peng’s first new appearance on the Chinese internet since the sexual-assault allegation. News about Ms. Peng has been tightly controlled inside China.
Late on Saturday, Mr. Hu shared on Twitter two video clips of a dinner that he said Ms. Peng had attended the previous night. In those short clips, Ms. Peng can be seen listening as the same China Open executives talked to her at a Sichuan restaurant in Beijing, making several pointed references to the dates, Nov. 20 and Nov. 21.
The Florida-based Women’s Tennis Association, which had threatened to pull its business out of China unless Beijing launched an investigation into Ms. Peng’s allegations, didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment about videos showing Ms. Peng at the Beijing youth tournament on Sunday.
But Steve Simon, the WTA’s chairman, said in a statement Saturday that the video of Ms. Peng at dinner was, on its own, insufficient to assuage his concerns.
“While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference,” Mr. Simon said, adding that he remained “concerned about Peng Shuai’s health and safety and that the allegation of sexual assault is being censored and swept under the rug.”
Over the weekend, two of the biggest names in men’s tennis joined their female counterparts in speaking out in support of Ms. Peng. “The whole tennis family is next to you,” Swiss star Roger Federer, a 20-time Grand Slam champion, said in an interview on Saturday with Sky Italia, referring to Ms. Peng, according to transcripts on the sports broadcaster’s website.
“All of us in the tennis family hope to see her back with us soon,” the Spaniard Rafael Nadal, who has also won 20 Grand Slams, was quoted as saying on Saturday by French newspaper L’Equipe.
Last week, China’s state broadcaster posted on Twitter the screenshot of what it described as an email from Ms. Peng calling the sexual-assault accusation untrue and saying that Ms. Peng was safe. Mr. Simon told CNN that he believed the message may not have been written by Ms. Peng, or that she may have been coerced into writing it.
Ms. Peng’s account on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform, where the sexual-assault accusation first appeared, remained unsearchable on Sunday. The sexual-assault allegation, which appeared on the account for about 20 minutes before disappearing on the evening of Nov. 2, described an on-and-off relationship that stretched back a decade between Ms. Peng and China’s former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, who sat on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee until his retirement in 2018. The post described the relationship as being sometimes consensual and sometimes involving coercion, including forced sex.
China Open replied to a request for comment by referring to its social-media posts about Ms. Peng.
Pictures of Ms. Peng at the Saturday dinner, posted by Ding Li, one of the participants, remained on Mr. Ding’s verified Weibo account. Mr. Ding, who has identified himself as working for one of Ms. Peng’s sportswear sponsors, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
China Open officials who attended the dinner and the Sunday youth match didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Some sports and women’s rights experts said they believed the videos and photos of Ms. Peng are unlikely to have been fabricated, but added that they are also unlikely to assuage the concerns of the WTA and other tennis stars.
“Her public appearances are being stage-managed to address the global reaction, but until the tennis community actually hears from her directly and independently, their questions won’t go away,” said Mark Dreyer, founder of China Sports Insider, a specialized news site.
Lü Pin, a Chinese women’s rights activist, said the information released so far did nothing to show that Ms. Peng is free of Chinese authorities’ control.
“They kidnap her in order for her to ‘cooperate’ with their fabrications, which is another affront to her personal dignity,” she said in a statement on Twitter, posted after the dinner videos but before the China Open event.
Olympics Body Faces Scrutiny After Call With Chinese Tennis Star
In the two weeks since Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai posted details of an affair with a former top Communist Party official, the United Nations, the White House, the Women’s Tennis Association and some of the sport’s biggest stars have expressed concern for her safety — and skepticism about China’s official reassurances.
The International Olympic Committee, which has hundreds of millions dollars at stake in the Beijing Winter Games starting in February, doesn’t have the same reservations. The organization on Sunday vouched for Beijing’s version of events following a 30-minute video call between Peng Shuai, IOC President Thomas Bach, chair of the Athletes’ Commission Emma Terho, and China’s representative to the IOC, Li Lingwei.
“I was relieved to see that Peng Shuai was doing fine, which was our main concern,” Terho said in the statement. The IOC said Peng thanked the organization for its concern, explained she is safe and well at home in Beijing, and would like her privacy to be respected.
But the IOC didn’t address key concerns, including why others can’t get in touch with Peng, whether she’s able to travel freely, why she hasn’t posted to her verified Weibo account, why she won’t speak with independent media outlets and whether she wrote an email attributed to her by state media claiming her allegations against one of China’s most powerful figures were “not true.”
In an emailed response to questions seeking more information, the IOC said it had nothing to add to its statement “at this point.”
With 74 days until the 2022 Winter Olympics, the IOC’s statement has only added to the questions surrounding Peng — and to the body’s own reputation for protecting the financial viability of its product above all else. The World Tennis Association has already said it’s not reassured by the IOC’s statement.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday he didn’t have an assessment of whether coercion was involved in the call that he could share publicly, while reiterating concern about her safety.
“The IOC has long shown a willful gullibility when it comes to working with China,” said Jules Boykoff, a professor of political science at Pacific University in Oregon and the author of four books on the Olympic Games. “They’re basically showing way too much deference to a host that has a long track record of disappearing citizens who raise difficult truths about what’s going on in China.”
Peng went missing earlier this month after she wrote on Weibo that former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli — who served in the top echelons of the party — had pressured her to have sex. That 1,500-character essay on her verified Weibo account recounting the tumultuous relationship was scrubbed from the internet. Attempts by the media and the WTA to contact her were unsuccessful.
The IOC’s financial interests extend beyond simply whether the games take place. The Olympics’ top-tier global sponsors, 14 companies including Coca-Cola Co. and Visa Inc., pay well more than $1 billion every four years to be associated with the pageantry, patriotism and overall goodwill the games tend to generate. This years’ events are a particular opportunity to reach Chinese consumers, a market estimated at $110 billion for 10 of the top 12 top overseas sponsors.
“The IOC is looking for a quick fix, so that nothing impacts the Olympics which is just around the corner,” said Mark Dreyer, who tracks Chinese sports investments on his website, China Sports Insider. “The IOC is basically looking to make it all go away as quickly as possible.”
The Women’s Tennis Association, which has been quite outspoken in raising questions about Peng’s safety, has approached the situation differently. It has a long history of speaking up for its athletes, including a successful campaign for equal prize money for male and female champions at tennis’s four Grand Slam events.
Its business interests in China are also less immediate. Due to the pandemic, the WTA already canceled the four events that were supposed to take place there in 2021, including the WTA Finals, which were relocated from Shenzhen to Guadalajara, Mexico.
Under those circumstances, said Isaac Stone Fish, founder of Strategy Risks, which specializes in corporate relationships with China, the WTA might have more to gain and less to lose.
“Even though this is a question of values, this also could make better economic sense for the WTA for all the positive branding that they’re going to get not only in the United States, but also globally,” he said. “And for how they’re standing up to the Communist Party.”
Chinese Official Accused of Sexual Assault Played Key Role In Setting Up Beijing 2022 Olympics
Zhang Gaoli, accused of assault in a post on tennis star Peng Shuai’s social-media account, headed a steering committee to land the Games.
A video call between the head of the International Olympic Committee and Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai is casting renewed spotlight on the former senior official accused of sexual assault in a post on the athlete’s social media account—who played an important role in arranging the upcoming Winter Olympics.
Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier and retired member of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo Standing Committee, kept a relatively low profile for an official of his rank. But during his time in office, he was regarded as a powerful and skilled technocrat, and was tasked with handling some of Beijing’s highest priorities, among which was managing China’s bid for the 2022 Games.
Mr. Zhang headed a steering group to “guide, support and supervise the 2022 bid,” according to IOC documents. The steering group included the “heads of all relevant ministries,” the documents say, and his role in it put him in contact with the highest ranking Olympic officials, including IOC president Thomas Bach.
Chinese government announcements also identified Mr. Zhang as head of the steering group, saying he gave instructions on everything from stadium construction to transportation before he handed the job to his successor in 2018.
The sexual assault allegation against Mr. Zhang, 75, first surfaced in a Nov. 2 post on Ms. Peng’s verified account on the Twitter -like Weibo platform. The post disappeared after roughly 20 minutes, and searches for her name on popular Chinese social-media platforms have been blocked ever since.
Fellow players and tennis officials were then unable to reach or locate Peng for over two weeks, which led to a global outpouring of concern for her well-being and saw the Women’s Tennis Association threaten to pull future events from China.
Mr. Bach chatted by video with Ms. Peng on Sunday, which led the IOC to conclude that she was “safe and well.” IOC athletes commission head Emma Terho joined the call, which was arranged at IOC request hours after Ms. Peng had made her first appearance in public since the sexual assault allegation at a tennis tournament in Beijing.
The IOC said Ms. Peng, a three-time Olympian, asked for privacy in the wake of the sexual-assault accusation. Ms. Peng has not personally spoken about the accusation since it was posted, and her agency has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Prior to the call, with the WTA and others focusing on Ms. Peng’s whereabouts and safety, Mr. Zhang had received relatively little attention. That changed shortly after Mr. Bach’s video chat, when a 2016 photo of the IOC president shaking hands with Mr. Zhang during a meeting in Beijing began to circulate on social media.
“The Chinese government attaches great importance to the preparations of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games,” Mr. Zhang told Mr. Bach during the meeting inside the Communist Party’s secretive leadership compound, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
“Like representatives of governments, companies, international organizations and many others, IOC representatives meet regularly with their counterparts. This is public knowledge,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said.
China’s State Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Leading the Winter Olympics steering group was part of Mr. Zhang’s portfolio as vice premier, a role that included greeting foreign officials and helping set financial and industrial policies.
In addition to his government role, he served as one of seven members of the Communist Party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee from 2012 to 2017. Prior to that he was Communist Party secretary of Tianjin, the coastal port city that is also Ms. Peng’s hometown.
Born in a poor fishing village in the southeastern province of Fujian, Mr. Zhang was an economist by training who climbed the party ranks by quietly shepherding technological innovation and economic growth in key areas, including the showcase city of Shenzhen in Guangdong and the large manufacturing base of Shandong Province.
During his time as one of China’s top leaders he was widely known for his wooden presence on state television and perpetually blank expression, the result of an injury to his face sustained in a car accident many years ago, according to a person familiar with the issue.
He deliberately cultivated a low profile, according to Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an American investment banker who recalled meeting Mr. Zhang in a 2009 book, “How China’s Leaders Think.”
“Results count more than words,” Mr. Kuhn quoted Mr. Zhang as saying.
But behind the scenes, Mr. Zhang was more complex than his public persona suggested, displaying a rich sense of humor and often cracking jokes, according to people who interacted with him. In state media, he was portrayed as a lover of literature and tennis.
The Nov. 2 post on Ms. Peng’s Weibo account said the tennis star and Mr. Zhang had sex once seven years earlier, when he was still the top official in Tianjin, and that he cut off contact with her after being called up to Beijing. Mr. Zhang contacted her again shortly after he retired, the post said, then invited her to his home and forced her into sex.
From that point on, the two began a three-year affair, according to the post, during which they talked about history from ancient times to the modern era, and had wide-ranging discussions on economics and politics.
“We played chess, sang, played table tennis, played pool and also played tennis together,” the post said. “We always had endless fun.”
The two later argued and the retired official begged out of a talk they were supposed to have on Nov. 2, according to the post. “You disappeared again, just like seven years ago,” it said.
China’s government has not addressed or acknowledged the sexual-assault accusation. Though it isn’t uncommon for members of the Communist Party elite to have extramarital affairs, Mr. Zhang is the first figure of his stature to face such a public allegation of sexual assault.
Still, government insiders say they don’t believe the allegations amount to a big scandal for the party. While the outcome is difficult to predict, they say, the party rarely puts top-level officials under investigation, and never for sexual misconduct alone.
In 2013, Chinese leader Xi Jinping broke a longstanding taboo against investigating former Standing Committee members when he approved the detention of former security czar Zhou Yongkang, who later pled guilty to corruption and was sentenced to life in prison. Although the government later accused Mr. Zhou of having a mistress, sexual misconduct was not listed among his crimes.
News of the accusation posted on Ms. Peng’s Weibo account has been completely censored inside China. None of the country’s state-run media outlets have mentioned it except on Twitter, which is blocked in China.
Ensuring the Winter Olympics come off without a major disturbance is a priority for Mr. Xi, who intends the Games to serve as a global showcase for the Communist Party and its achievements, according to some political analysts.
Prior to the sexual-assault accusations against Mr. Zhang, human-rights activists had called for a boycott of the 2022 Games in light of Beijing’s policies in minority-dominated regions like Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as its crushing of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
President Biden has said the U.S. is considering a diplomatic boycott, while China’s Foreign Ministry has criticized what it calls attempts to politicize the Olympics.
Businesses Stand Up To China After The Peng Shuai Outcry
It’s getting harder for executives to balance supporting social causes with reaping the riches of the Chinese market.
Rule No. 1 of doing business in China: Don’t tick off the government. Its bureaucrats hold the power of life and death over a business. Why risk forfeiting the riches of its vast market? Most of all, avoid anything of political sensitivity.
Apparently, Steve Simon didn’t get the memo. In recent days, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Women’s Tennis Association has waged a relentless campaign to protect one of its stars that has highlighted the iniquities of the communist regime, sparked global outrage, and left Chinese authorities stumbling and scrambling to find a way out.
The WTA’s tough stance has been characterized as a glaring exception. But it could signal a different future for the relationship between China and international business. A confluence of factors—heightened U.S.-China tensions, intensifying repression within China, and, most of all, more pressure on companies outside China to support social equity—will make it harder and harder for big business to turn a blind eye to Beijing’s abuses.
The outcome could be a lot more sharp confrontations between prominent businesses and the Chinese state, with the potential to reshape China’s economic relationship with the rest of the world.
There is, of course, nothing new about China’s human-rights horrors, nor the awkward position in which they have placed international companies. Well-known brands have repeatedly had to defend themselves against accusations of poor treatment of workers in Chinese factories. But for the most part, the profits in the gargantuan China market were just too juicy to sacrifice.
Every CEO had to have a China strategy or suffer in the stock market—even companies noted for championing social justice at home kowtow to authoritarianism in China. Nike Inc., for one, raised eyebrows earlier this year when its chief executive, John Donahoe, echoed Abraham Lincoln to pronounce that “we are a brand of China and for China.”
But the WTA shows how priorities are shifting. The scandal broke when Chinese tennis pro Peng Shuai accused a former vice premier of sexual assault in a social media post in early November. The post quickly vanished, and Peng disappeared from public view.
That prompted Simon to demand access to Peng to confirm her well-being and freedom of action, as well as an investigation into her accusation. He also threatened to pull the organization out of China.
That’s bad enough for a Chinese government that cherishes the country’s participation in international sports, but even worse, the incident has further fueled calls to boycott the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing, now only two months away.
Beijing dodged the WTA’s requests and instead attempted to deflect criticism with a series of propaganda stunts—videos, photos, and a purported email Peng wrote—that few found convincing, least of all Simon, who has refused to back down.
He is taking a big gamble with the WTA’s finances: In 2018 the WTA inked a lucrative 10-year deal to hold the WTA Finals in Shenzhen. But the issues raised by the plight of Peng are “bigger than the business,” he said.
Some of the circumstances driving Simon’s stubbornness might seem specific to the WTA. In the #MeToo era, it’s probably impossible for an organization for female athletes—founded by Billie Jean King, no less—not to take a stand when one of its well-known players disappears after charging a powerful person with sexual abuse. Yet it also highlights the pressures corporations are facing to play a greater role in ending discrimination and injustice.
Every large company now must have an ESG strategy or face the ire of employees and activists. Under a microscope for their efforts to promote diversity, close the gender gap, protect the environment, and support workers, CEOs will find it increasingly uncomfortable to justify their operations in a China where the government suppresses minorities and denies its citizens basic civil liberties.
And Beijing keeps making it less comfortable. Yahoo! and Microsoft Corp.’s LinkedIn both recently exited the China market amid stiffening state control over information. Meanwhile, Washington’s sanctions related to human-rights issues have also complicated U.S. business in China. The government’s detention of untold numbers of Uyghurs, a Muslim minority in the far west region of Xinjiang, has become a flashpoint.
The U.S. barred the import of cotton from Xinjiang over concerns Uyghurs were being forced to work, a step that has caused headaches for apparel brands with supply chains in China. More hurdles are likely. Pending legislation in Congress would expand the cotton ban to all products sourced from Xinjiang.
None of this means that Starbucks Corp. is about to shutter its Chinese coffee shops or General Motors Co. its car plants. American companies invested almost $300 billion in China from 1990 to 2020, and they aren’t about to walk away. Executives will still try to tiptoe between supporting social causes and reaping riches.
Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorganChase, quipped on Nov. 23 that he expected his bank to outlast the Chinese Communist Party, while reaffirming his company’s commitment to doing business in China; a day later, he said in a statement that he regretted the remark.
Desperate to salvage its revenue-spinning Winter Games, the International Olympic Committee, rather than side with the WTA, participated in a video call with Peng on Nov. 21 and pronounced the tennis star “safe and well.” Human Rights Watch criticized the IOC for “collaboration” with Chinese authorities on the call, stating that it “undermines its expressed commitment to human rights, including the rights and safety of athletes.”
The minefield between international companies and China’s bounty will become just that much harder to navigate safely, increasing the likelihoods that there will be more confrontations between Beijing and business, and more executives, like Simon, willing to stand up for social justice against the Chinese regime.