Peng Shuai, 35-year-old tennis professional from China, made headlines for a November 2nd post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. In her post, she accused Zhang Gaoli, the former senior Vice Premier of the People’s Republic of China from 2013 to 2018, of sexual assault. As senior Vice Premier, Gaoli was an extremely influential and highly ranked member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) serving under the Premier of the People’s Republic of China, who leads the State Council (or as the Council on Foreign Relations terms it “. . .China’s equivalent of a cabinet.”). Further, he held even more significant influence within the CCP as a member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). The PSC wields enormous power in China. As director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Center and Professor of Political Science at Victoria University of Wellington, Bo Zhiyue, has termed it “the. . .men who. . .run China.”
With this backdrop, one understands the stature of the figure at whom Shaui’s words were aimed. Simply stated, Shuai had the courage to speak out against one of China’s most influential politicians, though he is in retirement. However, with a well-documented and illustrious history of human rights abuses and suppression of free speech–a summary of which can be read at Amnesty International–, Shuai, by speaking out, put herself in grave danger of retribution from China’s political elite. Unfortunately, it appears that this retribution has come.
As reported by CNN, Shuai has not been seen since her post accusing Gaoli of sexual misconduct. However, Chinese state media on Saturday claimed to have video evidence of Shuai’s whereabouts and well-being, stating the video shows Shuai dining with friends. The only other indication of her whereabouts and her well-being is an email purportedly sent to Women’s Tennis Association Chairman and CEO, Steve Simon. However, the email was obtained and released through Chinese State-affiliated media in a tweet that can be seen here. The email states that the allegations in her previous post were false and that she was simply resting and well, taking time out of the spotlight.
The email has done next to nothing to quell concerns about Shuai’s safety. The UN Human Rights Office, through spokesperson Liz Throssell, in Geneva, as reported by CBS news has requested proof of life and an investigation into the allegation. The White House has also expressed its uneasiness over the state of affairs surrounding Shuai. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated, “[w]e are deeply concerned by reports that Peng Shuai appears to be missing after accusing a former PRC senior official of sexual assault. We join in the call for PRC authorities to provide independent and verifiable proof of her whereabouts and that she is safe.” Further, Ms. Psaki stated that “[w]e know the PRC has zero-tolerance for criticism and a record of silencing those that speak out, and we continue to condemn those practices.”
Along with responses from international and national governing bodies, the sporting world has repudiated China’s response to the allegations as well. WTA’s CEO and Chairman, Steve Simon stated on CNN that the association was “. . .at a crossroads with our relationship with China and operating our business over there. There’s no question about it. . .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.” Tennis legends such as Serena Williams, Andy Murray, and Billie Jean King have called for Peng Shuai’s safe return.
For its part, China has provided no independent and verifiable proof of life as of this writing. According to the Washington Post, the story has been entirely scrubbed from the Chinese internet and news media. In spite of the story being scrubbed from the internet, presumably at the direction of the State, China has pleaded ignorance and denied knowledge of the controversy through its Foreign Ministry. It appears that the Western World must do more to intervene to correct and prevent the egregious human rights abuses happening in China on a daily basis to hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, not only Peng Shaui. To understand the systemic and concerted crackdown on all potential opposition to the party line, one need only look at the treatment of ethnic minorities in China, such as Tibetans and Uighyars. With the Winter Olympics in Beijing rapidly approaching, one can only hope the spotlight burns white-hot on China moving forward with severe economic and diplomatic ramifications waiting if we do not see genuine attempts at improvement.
This story is developing, and all facts are as of the time of writing.
- Update: Peng Shuai was spotted at a tournament on 11/21/2021 after days of outrage about her disappearance.
Christopher Becker is a civil litigator practicing in New York. Christopher graduated from the University of Alabama’s School of Law in 2016. There, he was a Senior Editor of the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review.