A video call between the head of the International Olympic Committee and Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, whose nearly three-week disappearance from public view sparked an outcry, was meant to reassure the world that she was safe — but instead has raised more questions.
Concern grew in the last week for the former No. 1-ranked doubles player — who hadn't been seen since accusing a senior Chinese official of sexual assault on Nov. 2. Tennis stars and fans alike demanded to know #WhereIsPengShuai, and the head of the Women’s Tennis Association threatened to pull lucrative events from China.
On Sunday, the IOC said Peng spoke to its president, Thomas Bach, and other officials in a 30-minute video call from Beijing. According to the organization's statement, she reassured them that she was well and thanked them for their concern — while asking for privacy.
The IOC posted a photo that shows Bach facing a screen on which Peng appears but did not release video of the call. On the same day, China Open posted videos and photos of her appearance at a youth tennis tournament in Beijing that morning.
The IOC's short statement, which offered few details and no follow-up on her allegations, seems unlikely to close the door on Peng's case — and it's leading to increasing criticism of the sports body, which was already facing calls for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which open on Feb. 4.
Even after the statement was published Sunday, the WTA repeated what chairman and CEO Steve Simon has been saying for more than a week, calling for a full, fair and transparent investigation “without censorship.”
The IOC was already under pressure for pushing ahead with the Games amid allegations that China has committed human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims, Tibetans, and other minorities. China denies the accusations. “We are firmly opposed to any words and deeds that politicize sports in violation of the Olympic spirit,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Monday, when asked about a possible boycott.
Now, some critics say the IOC's handling of the call with Peng makes it an active partner in delivering Beijing’s message — while not providing Peng with an open forum to discuss her allegations.
Yaqiu Wang, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch, tweeted that the IOC is “actively playing a role in the Chinese government’s enforced disappearance, coercion and propaganda machinery.”
When asked about the criticism, the IOC said in a statement Monday that the main purpose of the call was to find out how Peng was — and that she “was very clear in confirming that she is safe and well.”
She agreed to stay in touch with Olympic officials — including having dinner with Bach in Beijing in January — and the body said it told her she could reach out whenever “she deems it appropriate.” It added that in order to respect Peng's privacy, it would not comment further.
This is the second time this year that the IOC has been in the spotlight for pushing ahead with an Olympics: Many wanted the body to call off the Summer Games in Tokyo because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Critics note that IOC has a strong interest in holding the events because it generates 91% of its income from sponsors and selling broadcast rights at the Games.
Peng is just one of a number of Chinese businesspeople, activists and ordinary people who have disappeared in recent years after criticizing party figures or in crackdowns on corruption or pro-democracy and labor rights campaigns.
While the ruling Communist Party is quick to blot out any criticism, that this time it came from an athlete made it especially sensitive. State media celebrate athletes' victories as proof the party is making China strong — and the party is vigilant about making sure they cannot use their prominence and public appeal to erode its image.
The tennis star accused a former member of the Communist Party’s ruling Standing Committee, Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault in a social media post that was removed quickly.
She wrote in part: “I know that to you, vice minister Zhang Gaoli, a person of high status and power, you’ve said you’re not afraid. With your intelligence, you certainly will deny it or you can even use it against me, you can dismiss it without a care. Even if I’m destroying myself, like throwing an egg against a rock, or a moth flying into a flame, I will still speak out the truth about us.”
Concerns about the censoring of her post and her subsequent disappearance from public view grew into a furor, drawing comments from tennis greats like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, and Martina Navratilova.
All the while, news of her allegations was blacked out at home. CNN reported that its signal in China had been blocked during reporting on Peng.
A search for her name Monday on Weibo, one of China’s leading social media platforms, produced only a few posts, and none that refer to the sexual assault allegation or the questions about her whereabouts.
Still missing is Zhang. He left public life about three years ago after being one of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee — the apex of political power in China.
The WTA is the first sports body to defiantly stand up to China’s financial clout — in what many see as a sharp contrast to the IOC, which says its policy is “quiet diplomacy.”
“The statements make the IOC complicit in the Chinese authority’s malicious propaganda and lack of care for basic human rights and justice,” Global Athlete, a lobby group for athletes, said in a statement.
“The IOC showed a complete disregard for allegations of sexual violence and abuse against athletes," the statement said. "By taking a nonchalant approach to Peng Shuai’s disappearance and by refusing to mention her serious allegations of sexual assault, IOC President Thomas Bach and the IOC Athletes’ Commission demonstrate an abhorrent indifference to sexual violence and the well-being of female athletes.”