In November, Chinese tennis player and three-time Olympian Peng Shuai posted a sexual assault complaint on social media – then went silent. The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai trended globally.
Now, as the Winter Olympics begin this week in China, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced its president Thomas Bach will have “dinner and a meeting with Peng Shuai” in Beijing – along with representatives of Chinese Olympic Committee, the state-controlled body that is the IOC’s partner in staging the games.
It is impossible to know if Peng Shuai is in a position to reject this dinner invitation or if she could have asked for a different type of encounter with Bach or other members of the IOC, such as safely outside China. But what’s clear is that the Chinese government regularly silences and forcibly disappears people whose views or conduct it sees as embarrassing, employs extralegal forms of detention, and publishes or televises forced confessions to make prosecutions appear legitimate.
On November 2, Peng Shuai wrote on the Chinese social media site Weibo that Zhang Gaoli had forced her into having a sexual relationship with him. Gaoli, now 75, served as China’s vice premier and was a top official in charge of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics until his retirement.
Although Peng is one of China’s best-known athletes, she disappeared from sight for weeks. Her statement was scrubbed from the internet. She first reappeared in public at dinner in videos released by state-run media, and has – under circumstances unknown – walked back her sexual assault complaint in a pro-Beijing Singaporean newspaper.
The Chinese government brought this Olympian public relations disaster on itself by repeatedly silencing women who bring forward sexual violence complaints. Chinese officials have made clear their hostility to any political expression by Olympic athletes, threatening all athletes who don’t toe the Chinese Communist Party line. The IOC failed to adopt a human rights framework before these Games that could have protected athletes from Beijing’s censorious hand.
The world cannot know what surveillance, coercion, or duress is being applied to Peng or what she would say if she lived in a country where voices are not systematically silenced. But we do know that no Beijing-supervised dinner with IOC officials can mask the Chinese government’s ugly repression of activists, journalists, and athletes.