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Beijing Tells World to Stop ‘Politicizing’ Peng Shuai’s Sexual Assault Allegation

Juliet Wei
Juliet Wei covers China news and U.S.-China relations and has worked as a correspondent with Senate and House Correspondent Credential at Washington DC. She holds an M.A. in Specialized Journalism from the University of Southern California.
Published: November 24, 2021
(L) Peng Shuai of China in action against Daria Kasatkina of Russia during women's singles first round match 2019 China Open - Day 1 on September 28, 2019 in Beijing, China. (Image: Fred Lee/Getty Images) (R) Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian takes a question at the daily media briefing in Beijing on April 8, 2020. (Image: GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

The whereabouts and safety of tennis star Peng Shuai have become a matter of international concern in the weeks after she posted a message on social media alleging that she was coerced into having sex by Zhang Gaoli, China’s former vice premier.

While the Chinese authorities and state media have produced photos and video that shows Peng is currently active and free, many foreign observers are unconvinced. 

On Nov. 23, People’s Republic of China (PRC) foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian criticized what he said was a “politicization” of the Peng Shuai issue, days after he denied any knowledge of the matter. 

“Regarding Peng Shuai’s current situation, I have answered this question many times. It’s not a diplomatic matter.” he said at a press briefing. “I believe everyone will have seen she has recently attended some public activities and also held a video call with IOC President [Thomas] Bach.” 

Peng had re-appeared over the weekend in Beijing and held a video call with Bach, who is president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), on Sunday. Nov. 21. 

Nevertheless, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has stated that this did not address or alleviate concerns about her wellbeing, or provide any answers as to the allegations regarding Zhang Gaoli. 

To See What Will Happen to Peng Shuai, Watch China’s Politics

As stated in an an article titled “Why China Can’t Bury Peng Shuai and Its #MeToo Scandal” in the column “The Disappearance of Peng Shuai” in the New York Times, “The ruling Communist Party communicates through one-way, top-down messaging. It seems to have a hard time understanding that persuasive narratives must be backed by facts and verified by credible, independent sources.”

“This time, the world of women’s tennis isn’t playing along and has suggested it will stop holding events in China until it is sure Ms. Peng is truly free of government control. The biggest names in tennis — Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, and Novak Djokovic, among many others — don’t seem to be afraid to lose access to a potential market of 1.4 billion tennis fans, either.”, as in the article.

According to Tang Hao, who hosts the video program “Crossroads of the World,” Chinese state-media deliberately led public opinion to shift the central focus on Peng’s case from the sexual assault of a woman by a senior Communist Party official to the sub-issue of “whether Peng shows up or not” or “whether Peng is free.”

According to Tang, it is a tactic of “shift the focus,” which the party-state media is very good at, which is by releasing a lot of information to dominate the discourse step by step and to change the focus of the incident to other minor details. 

He added, “The [actual] focus is not on whether or not Peng Shuai showed up, but on Zhang Gaoli’s sexual assault of Ms. Peng; that is the ugly Communist Party culture of officials who abuse the daughters of the Chinese people.”