China draws scrutiny over case of tennis star Peng Shuai

Associated Press/Andy Brownbill

The disappearance from public view of Chinese tennis champion Peng Shuai and Beijing’s censorship of her accusations of sexual assault are sharpening the focus on China’s handling of human rights as the country prepares to host the upcoming Winter Olympics.

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which governs the worldwide women’s tennis tour, has threatened to pull its business from China over concern for Peng’s safety, marking one of the strongest reactions yet from within the sports world and foreign nations increasingly outraged over Beijing’s actions.

“Our relationship with China is at a crossroads,” WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said in a statement after Chinese state media released images and video purportedly showing Peng out to dinner after she went missing earlier this month.

Simon called the video “insufficient” to confirm Peng’s safety and well-being. 

It was the first time Peng was seen publicly in nearly three weeks, having largely vanished from public view after posting on social media allegations of sexual assault against China’s former vice premier.

China’s “Great Firewall” of internet censorship has scrubbed any reference to Peng’s allegations online and has taken offline international news broadcasts discussing her situation.

Peng’s treatment has added to the growing list of condemnations and concerns over China’s human rights abuses and provocations. 

They include its crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, which the U.S. and some other countries have labeled a genocide; repression of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong; its military provocations against Taiwan; Chinese control over Tibet; obstruction of investigations into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic; and aggressive posture on the international stage from the economy to trade to cyberattacks. 

The Biden administration says it is monitoring the situation surrounding Peng closely but has deferred when asked if the U.S. is preparing to take a stance against China’s hosting the Olympics in February.

“I don’t have anything new to convey to you about the Olympics,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday. “Obviously, human rights and the handling of human rights in China is something that we watch closely and the world watches closely.”

President Biden has raised the prospect of a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, but the administration has not released a timeline of when such a decision would be announced, frustrating critics who say the president should push harder on this issue. 

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement on Monday that “it is far past the time for the Biden Administration to take a forward-leaning policy position on the Olympics and to prepare our athletes for the hostile environment they will be entering.”

Suzanne Nossel, CEO of human rights organization PEN America and an advisory board member of Foreign Policy for America, argued the international community holds important leverage over China with the Olympics and should be vocal with criticisms about Beijing’s behavior.

“I think it’s extremely important to be outspoken on the issue of Peng Shuai, specifically, and on China’s record more broadly because with Chinese influence around the globe just expanding, it’s an alternate universe in terms of their value system — no respect for freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, the right to dissent, press freedom,” she said.

“At a moment like this, where you have a high-profile case, you have a high-stakes event coming that Beijing very much wants to have go smoothly — they’re going to be on prominent display, they want to look good — I think there’s real leverage in this situation,” she added.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called on Biden to consider a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics, including Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who spearheaded an amendment the Senate passed in June that would mandate a diplomatic boycott in light of China’s ongoing human rights abuses. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in May also backed a diplomatic boycott.

Romney in an op-ed in March mentioned former President Carter’s decision to fully boycott the 1980 Moscow Games, arguing that, unlike then, U.S. athletes should be allowed to compete in Beijing. 

However, some of Romney’s GOP colleagues are calling to blacklist the games entirely. Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) called for Biden to implement a full boycott of the Winter Olympics and for Team USA athletes to not compete.

Yet some argue that such firm positions, including a boycott, can inflame global tensions rather than temper them and do little to influence behavior. 

“I think Biden’s playing it right by lowering expectations, saying he might carry out a diplomatic boycott but essentially giving [Chinese] President Xi a couple of months to shape up on a couple of these issues so as to hopefully avert that,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. 

“The bottom line is if something egregious has just happened that makes you feel like you just can’t do business as usual at that moment, that’s probably when you’d have a boycott; otherwise, I’d probably say don’t,” he said.

Nossel agreed that the decision for Biden to take specific action against China and the Olympics is delicate. 

“They’re trying to weigh whether to blow up the relationship at this sensitive time, and I can understand they’re hesitant to do so,” she said, adding the WTA “really stands out for its firmness and resolve.” 

This approach appears to mirror that of U.S. allies that have tried to resist conflating sports with geopolitics, arguing that sanctions imposed on Beijing over human rights abuses do not block cooperation in other areas. 

“OK, we put sanctions but we don’t stop trading with China,” Franck Riester, the French minister delegate for foreign trade and the economy, told The Hill in Washington when asked about concerns over participating in the Beijing-hosted Olympics.

Riester continued that he’s “very cautious” about using sports to exert diplomatic or political pressure in any sense. 

But some athletes are speaking out. Tennis icons Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka have issued urgent pleas for Peng’s safety to be verified, tweeting “#WhereisPengShuai.”

Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter, who is outspoken on human rights abuses in China, reaffirmed his calls for the Olympics to be moved in light of the situation surrounding Peng. 

“The sports community must wake up—and speak up. We need to realize that the authoritarian Chinese government isn’t our friend. The Communist Party is a brutal dictatorship that has weaponized economic power to achieve ideological and political compliance,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal.

“All the gold medals in the world aren’t worth selling your values and your principles to the Chinese Communist Party,” he added. 

Tags 2022 Beijing Olympics China Jen Psaki Joe Biden Marsha Blackburn Michael McCaul Mitt Romney Nancy Pelosi Peng Shuai Tom Cotton Women's Tennis Association WTA

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