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A video call between Olympic officials and Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, whose nearly three-week disappearance from the public sparked outrage, was intended to reassure the world that she was safe, but has instead raised more questions.
Concern grew in the last week before the former number 1 ranked doubles player who had not been seen since he accused a senior Chinese official of assault on Nov. 2. Tennis stars and fans demanded to know #WhereIsPengShuai, and the head of the Womens Tennis Association threatened to pull lucrative events from China.
On Sunday, the International Olympic Committee said Peng has spoken with officials, including IOC President Thomas Bach, in a 30-minute video call from Beijing. According to the organization’s statement, she assured them she was fine and thanked them for their concern while asking for privacy.
the IOC posted a photo in which Bach is confronted with a screen where Peng appears, but has not released any video of the conversation. That same day, China Open posted videos and photos of her performance at a youth tennis tournament in Beijing that morning.
The IOC’s brief statement, which offered few details and failed to act on its allegations, seems unlikely to close the door on the Peng case and has sparked mounting criticism of the sports organization, which has already faced calls for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which open on February 4.
Even after the statement was released on Sunday, the WTA echoed 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 has already been under pressure to go ahead with the Games amid allegations that China has committed human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims, Tibetans and other minorities. China denies the allegations. We strongly oppose any words and deeds that politicize sports contrary to the Olympic spirit, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday when asked about a possible boycott.
Now, some critics say the IOC’s handling of the talk with Peng makes it an active partner in getting Beijing’s message across, while not providing Peng with an open forum to discuss its allegations.
Yaqiu Wang, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch, tweeted that the IOC is actively involved in the disappearance, coercion and propaganda machines enforced by the Chinese governments.
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 doing and that she was very clear in confirming that she is safe and sound.
She agreed to stay in touch with Olympic officials, including a dinner with Bach in Beijing in January, and the body said it told her she could get in touch whenever she sees fit. 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 over concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. Critics note that the IOC has a strong interest in organizing the events, as it generates 91% of its revenue from sponsors and the sale of broadcast rights to the Games.
Peng is just one of many Chinese businessmen, activists and ordinary people that have disappeared in recent years after criticism of party figures or crackdowns on corruption or campaigns for democracy and labor rights.
Although the ruling Communist Party is quick to dismiss any criticism, this time it became extra sensitive because it came from an athlete. State media celebrate athletes’ victories as proof that the party makes China strong and the party is careful not to use their fame and public appeal to tarnish its image.
The tennis star accused Zhang Gaoli, a former member of the Communist Party’s ruling Standing Committee, of sexual assault in a social media post that was quickly deleted.
She wrote in part: I know that to you, Deputy Minister Zhang Gaoli, a person of high status and power, you have said that you are not afraid. With your intelligence you will surely deny it or you can even use it against me, you can unconcernedly reject it. Even if I destroy myself, like throwing an egg against a rock, or a moth flying into a flame, I will still speak the truth about us.
Concerns over the censorship of her post and her subsequent disappearance from public view grew into a furore, receiving comments from tennis greats such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova.
All the while, the news of her accusations was obscured at home. CNN reported that its signal was blocked in China during coverage of Peng.
A search for her name Monday on Weibo, one of China’s leading social media platforms, turned up only a few posts, none referring to the assault charge or the questions about her whereabouts.
Zhang is still missing. He left public life about three years ago after serving as one of seven members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s top political power.
The WTA is the first sports organization to defiantly challenge China’s financial might, in what many see as a stark contrast to the IOC, which says its policy is quiet diplomacy.
The statements make the IOC complicit in the Chinese authorities’ malicious propaganda and lack of concern for basic human rights and justice, Global Athlete, an athlete advocacy group, said in a statement.
The IOC showed complete disregard for allegations of sexual assault and abuse of athletes,” the statement said. “By taking a casual approach to Peng Shuai’s disappearance and refusing to name her serious allegations of sexual assault, IOC President Thomas Bach and the IOC Athletes Commission are demonstrating a horrific indifference to sexual violence and the wellbeing of female athletes.
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