Sports

Peng Shuai ‘retires,’ most of the world barely notices


Peng Shuai (l.) accused China’s former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli (r.) of sexual assault, and conspicuously vanished soon after.

Peng Shuai (l.) accused China’s former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli (r.) of sexual assault, and conspicuously vanished soon after.
Photo: Getty Images

Since Peng Shuai bravely penned details of her sexual abuse at the hands of former Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli in November, the 36-year-old tennis star has become a symbol for the extent of Chinese censorship. Saying that China has handled Shuai’s accusations against a high-ranking Chinese government official dreadfully would be too generous. It’s been frightening to peek into how their total control ideology and human rights abuses have permeated every aspect of their society.

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At one time, Shuai was the 14th ranked tennis player in the world and the No. 1 doubles player on the WTA circuit. She was China’s most famous active tennis player. In the weeks since her social media post swept across the globe, Shuai vanished off the face of the earth, along with the Weibo post in which she recounted her abuse. Shuai’s disappearance detonated a groundswell of support across the sporting world.

Since re-emerging in public on Nov. 23 through videos and photos posted by members of government-controlled media, she’s been trotted out as part of a poorly-choreographed dog and pony show. The hush campaign’s intent has been about quelling the global controversy her initial accusation incited and blunting the long-term repercussions. China investigating her accusation has been absent from the discourse, but not unexpected.

Shuai’s ham-handed weekend media blitz coordinated by Chinese officials ranged from a highly-publicized meeting with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach to an interview with French sports daily L’Equipe. However, she was accompanied by the Chinese Olympic Committee’s chief of staff during the interview in which she announced her “retirement” from professional tennis.

By prancing Shuai around in Beijing, China used their sullied Olympic Games to backdrop their hush campaign. The International Olympic Committee gave China the cover it needed after they met with Shuai by determining that it wasn’t within their purview “to judge her position in one way or another.”

Fortunately, the WTA isn’t buying the bridge being sold to them. In a statement released Monday, the WTA reiterated their desire to see a formal investigation by authorities into her allegations.

Shuai has since recanted her accusations in state-media-controlled interviews and told L’Equipe, “I don’t want the meaning of this post to be twisted anymore. And I don’t want any further media hype around it.”

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The backlash to China’s erasure of Shuai has drawn a rebuke from a sporting community that has conducted a see no evil, hear no evil business relationship with China. Shuai’s silencing created an international incident that upended the entire women’s tour. Shuai’s predicament can’t get stuffed back into the bottle now.

What’s most concerning about Peng’s apparent “retirement” is that it provides China with an excuse to essentially sweep her under by the rug, keeping her out of the headlines as the WTA season revs into high gear and precludes her from playing tour events abroad where she could potentially tell her unvarnished truth. Shuai told the IOC she plans to travel to Europe once the Covid-19 pandemic is over, however, like most totalitarian regimes, China can exact revenge upon her friends and relatives if she ever runs afoul of them.

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China’s genocide of Uyghurs shows how far they’re willing to go to eliminate an entire ethnic group. The WTA cannot allow Shuai to be consigned to oblivion. In December, the WTA made the dramatic decision to suspend all tournaments in China. The least they can do is keep that policy in place permanently. But it shouldn’t be left to the WTA to make a stand that their peers on the men’s tour or in other leagues and corporate sponsors haven’t. China listens to money and the rest of the world can keep the pressure on by cutting back on business and international competitions in the region.

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