Tennis star Peng Shuai is an unlikely symbol of Chinese government repression. Like many Chinese celebrities, the 35-year-old’s social media profile is peppered with emoji of the national flag and pictures from Chinese Communist Party events.
Yet Peng’s bombshell allegation of sexual abuse by former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli, 75, earlier this month has galvanized calls to boycott the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics over alleged human rights abuses in China. Beijing has slammed the campaign as a “farce” that politicizes the Games.
The standoff comes amid heightened scrutiny of Beijing as the international business community, sports associations and events are pressed to take a stand on human rights issues in China, even as Beijing has become more resolute to rebuff pressure campaigns.
The international deadlock over civil freedoms in China is only likely to intensify as President Xi Jinping continues to expand a powerful security state that sees threats to the party’s power everywhere — not least from outside voices drawing attention to oppression at home.
China’s with-us-or-against-us attitude over human rights makes compromise difficult. President Biden has said the White House is considering a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which start on Feb. 4. That measure has both angered Beijing and inspired calls from Republicans for U.S. athletes not to compete.
Amid the tussle, activists sense a building sea change in global discussion of China’s human rights record as governments, multinationals and global organizations struggle to ignore an expanding list of concerns.
The worsening situation in China — and the party’s more aggressive response to criticism — means international institutions find it hard to predict “whether they are going to step on a land mine,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
For anyone with extensive operations in the country, it is becoming a question of when, not if, the next publicity crisis will hit. “It’s harder to say, ‘We are not doing anything political. We are just doing business,’ ” she added.
Fallout from Peng’s post is a reminder of the unpredictable nature of China’s crackdowns.
After the allegations were posted on her official Weibo page, she was conspicuously absent from public view for more than two weeks, prompting tennis stars such as Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka to issue calls for her safety. Last week, she resurfaced in carefully curated public appearances reported by Chinese state media.
“She’s the perfect embodiment of the fact that anyone can become a victim of sexual violence, but also in China, anyone can become a victim of this brutal suppression of critics,” said Eva Pils, a professor of law at King’s College London who focuses on human rights in China.
In a breach of party convention that considers the personal lives of top officials a state secret, Peng described a fraught sexual relationship with Zhang, who from 2013 to 2018 was ranked seventh out of seven on the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s top decision-making body, and headed the committee responsible for organizing China’s Winter Olympics. Peng also accused him of coercing her to restart their affair when he retired three years ago.
The State Council Information Office, which handles publicity for the party, did not respond to a request for comment.
The way Peng was quickly censored online and disappeared before making a seemingly controlled reappearance in Chinese state media was part of a series of events that human rights activists said shared similarities with past detentions of individuals deemed a threat to party rule.
“Most important is, will this trigger wider interest in China’s systemic abuses?” Pils asked.
Boycott campaigns for the Beijing Winter Games had already gained traction in Western capitals because of the mass internment of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other mostly Muslim groups in Xinjiang, religious repression in Tibet, and the disappearance of rights activists and lawyers.
But there are few signs that Beijing is considering changing course. This month, a history resolution to cement Xi’s chances of continuing rule for a third term from late 2022 warned of “external encirclement” and stressed the need to “fight to the end” with any forces that attempt to subvert the party.
“Constant concessions will only invite more bullying and humiliation,” the document said.
The Chinese authorities’ touchiness means global outcries have a mixed record of securing better treatment of repressed groups. In some cases, China has taken steps to protect its international image while making largely cosmetic adjustments to policies. In others, criticism only fortified official resolve and led to an escalation of suppression.
After reeducation camps in Xinjiang were exposed, sparking a global backlash, Beijing launched a fierce defense of its policy before eventually declaring that all students had “graduated.” But overseas Uyghurs remain unable to contact missing relatives, even after several democratic nations, including the United States, labeled China’s Xinjiang policy “genocide.”
Such brazenness has led several internationally known U.S. athletes and sports teams, often supporters of movements like Black Lives Matter or #MeToo at home, to speak up about social issues in China, sparking intense pushback from the Chinese authorities.
Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter’s recent criticisms of Xi over Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang led to a blackout of his team’s games in China, worsening the NBA’s already troubled relationship with the Chinese government.
The charged atmosphere means organizations involved in Peng’s case, such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Women’s Tennis Association, are being compelled to make a choice: accept China’s denials of wrongdoing and risk complicity or raise concerns and accept almost certain reprisals from Beijing.
WTA Chairman Steve Simon, for one, has repeatedly called for credible proof of Peng’s well-being and an independent investigation into her allegations, while acknowledging that the stance could hurt the association’s relationship with China.
Then there’s the IOC. On Sunday, the organization said its chairman had spoken with Peng in a video call and claimed she was safe. That statement drew sharp rebukes from human rights groups, which have long been concerned about the organization’s reluctance to challenge Beijing.
The IOC’s statement came even as Peng remained persona non grata within China. Entering her name on social media platforms or search engines returns few and exclusively older articles, without any mention of her relationship with Zhang.
Gradually building momentum for the #MeToo movement has run up against censorship and detention of prominent feminist activists. Peng’s post did not directly use the language of #MeToo, but her account echoed past allegations against Chinese men who abuse their position of power to assault women or coerce them into sexual relationships.
“We think of it as a #MeToo case because she very clearly said she did not agree to have sex, but she was forced to,” said Xiong Jing, a Chinese feminist activist based in Hong Kong. “The way she told it by a post on social media is also typical of how many victims tell their stories.”
Peng’s post described having a sexual relationship with Zhang seven years earlier when he was party boss of Tianjin, the eastern port city where Peng lived and trained. He then cut off contact after being promoted to his new role in Beijing.
Three years ago, she said, Zhang reached out and asked her to play tennis before again propositioning her. “That afternoon I originally did not agree and kept crying,” she wrote. After dinner and a persistent needling from Zhang, she agreed while still feeling fear, according to screenshots of her post.
After that, Peng said the two resumed a relationship, the true nature of which she kept secret from even her mother. After a fight on Oct. 30, Zhang seemed to once again abandon her. “Just like that you ‘disappeared’ like you had seven years ago,” the post read.