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Chinese Tennis Star’s Disappearance Is Warning for Olympics

Peng Shuai Hasn’t Been Seen in Public Since November 2

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai during the second round of WTA Guangzhou Open 2019 in Guangzhou city, China, September 18, 2019.  © 2019 Imaginechina via AP Images

Three-time Olympian Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai is missing. The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai is trending globally, and world tennis champions Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, and Novak Djokovic voiced fears about the 35-year-old star’s whereabouts. 

On November 2, Peng said on social media that she had been sexually assaulted, forced into a sexual relationship with Zhang Gaoli, 75, who was China’s vice premier from 2013 to 2018.

Peng has not been seen in public since and her social media posts have been deleted. On Thursday, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) received a statement purporting to be from Peng, recanting her abuse claim. “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” said WTA chair Steve Simon. The WTA called for an investigation into her complaint and said it is prepared to pull tournaments out of the country if it doesn't get an appropriate response.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), in contrast, had been silent on the Olympian’s disappearance. When the IOC finally commented, it was to endorse the government’s line: “We have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe.”

The Chinese government, the IOC’s Winter Olympics partner, frequently forcibly disappears individuals whose views or conduct it sees as problematic or embarrassing, employs extralegal forms of detention, and publishes forced confessions to make dubious cases appear legitimate. From Nobel Peace Prize laureates to Hong Kong publishers to Interpol chiefs, Chinese authorities have gone to great lengths to silence critics.

Given this, it’s astonishing that the IOC would accept the government’s assurances, particularly at the expense of a female Olympian making grave allegations.  

The Chinese government is committing crimes against humanity targeting millions of ethnic Uyghurs and heightening its oppression in Hong Kong and Tibet, all while choking off domestic and international media. But for the Chinese government, the Olympic Games are a geopolitical event that can elevate the status of the government and the ruling Chinese Communist Party at home and abroad.

The February 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing are just two months away.  Athletes, global sports fans, and Olympic sponsors should speak up for Peng, and use their leverage to address human rights abuses in China ahead of the Games. The Olympics are supposed to be a celebration of humanity, not an opportunity to mistreat athletes and sportswash crimes against humanity.

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