With less than three months until the Beijing Olympic Games, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai alleged in a social media post that the former vice premier of China, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her. Since a shroud of secrecy usually covers senior Chinese Communist Party leaders’ private lives, Peng’s detailed allegation exposed the darkness of China’s most powerful men.
The CCP initially responded with its typically heavy hand, forcefully “disappearing” Peng physically and from the digital world. Hundreds and thousands of Chinese citizens, including China’s richest man Jack Ma, have been “disappeared” in a similar fashion. Ma didn’t “reappear” until three months later. But the CCP didn’t expect strong pushback from the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and its most influential stars.
The WTA quickly and very publicly called on Beijing to investigate Peng’s allegations of sexual assault and hasn’t given up on reaching Peng directly. Many prominent tennis stars, including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, and WTA founder Billie Jean King spoke about concerns for Peng’s safety. Their star power has kept #whereisPengShuai trending on Twitter for days, signaling to the Chinese authorities that this would not quickly go away.
China sent WTA Chief Executive Officer Steve Simon an email purportedly written by Peng, claiming her “allegation of sexual assault is not true” and “everything is fine.” Simon voiced his skepticism of the email. Instead, he insisted that the Chinese government come clean with Peng’s whereabouts.
Update: This week, CEO Simon announced that WTA is suspending all tournaments in China.
@WTA is suspending all tournaments in China in response to Chinese tennis star #PengShuai sexual assault allegations & subsequent disappearance. @WTA CEO Steve Simon puts so many more rich and powerful corporations to shame with this courageous act. https://t.co/ZNTTXQpTb3
— Helen Raleigh (@HRaleighspeaks) December 1, 2021
Then Simon did something few western organizations had done before. In an interview with CNN, Simon made it clear that the WTA is willing to pull its lucrative business out of China and lose millions of dollars if Peng’s allegations are not thoroughly investigated and she is not spoken with directly, because “this is bigger than the business.” Tennis greats such as the world’s No. 1 men’s tennis player, Novak Djokovic, didn’t hesitate to offer support to Simon’s proposed response to Beijing.
Because of the leadership these tennis stars and the WTA have provided, international pressure on Beijing to prove Peng’s safety has grown. Even the United Nations, an agency that has been under Beijing’s influence for decades and has rarely criticized Beijing on its human rights abuses, joined the call for China to provide proof of Peng’s safety. The movement to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics has been more energized than ever.
The CCP had never had to face this kind of high-profile pushback before. It had to scramble for responses. After forcing Peng to “disappear” for two weeks, the CCP made Peng “reappear.” China’s state-controlled media released photos and videos of Peng in highly controlled circumstances. When those images failed to convince people, the Chinese authorities arranged a video phone call between Peng and several officials from the International Olympics Committee, including IOC President Thomas Bach.
Beijing chose the IOC over WTA because the regime was confident that the IOC would do its dirty bidding. Whether it was Berlin in 1936, Moscow in 1980, or Beijing in 2008, the IOC has repeatedly served as a useful idiot for the world’s worst authoritarian regimes. It often placed sport at the service of these brutal regimes, letting them abuse its platform to promote their propaganda and hide their atrocities behind staged fanfares and forced smiles.
It turned out that Zhang Gaoli, the man Peng accused of sexual assault, played a key role in helping Beijing land the 2022 Winter Olympics. Therefore, few were surprised that after IOC officials’ phone call with Peng, they did Beijing’s bidding by affirming Peng to be “safe and well.”
It is safe to assume that if not for international tennis stars and the WTA’s Simon’s courage to stand up to China, we probably would never hear or see Peng again. Although, clearly, Peng is not free, at least she is out of life-threatening danger for now.
China Has Less Leverage
The WTA’s CEO and stars have taught us several valuable lessons. First, China doesn’t have all the leverage, as some think. Too often, businesses, organizations, and well-known individuals in the west are unwilling to stand up to China because they believe nothing will happen because China has all the leverage. But the west has many things that China wants: western markets, financial systems, natural resources, and technology.
Like all dictatorial regimes, the CCP wants to be both “loved” and “feared.” It has invested millions of dollars in shaping global public opinion to “tell China’s story right” from the regime’s point of view, albeit unsuccessfully. It desperately needs foreign organizations’ participation in events hosted by Beijing to legitimize the regime and raise the party’s international profile in front of an increasingly sophisticated domestic audience. It will be a massive embarrassment for the CCP if a well-known organization such as the WTA pulls out of China right before the nation is ready to show off its power and prestige at the Olympics.
International businesses and organizations should recognize both the leverage they possess and the CCP’s limits. Suppose more organizations and corporations stand up to the CCP? Although the CCP would not give up oppressing the Chinese people altogether, it may not go as far as it wants.
One of the CCP’s most potent weapons is economic coercion. The party often uses market access to China to pressure international businesses and organizations to silence their criticisms and do whatever China demands. The WTA has shown that when an organization is ready and willing to bear the cost of standing up to the CCP, such an organization frees itself from the CCP’s coercion and puts itself in a powerful position. More often than not, the CCP will be more willing to compromise.
A Test of Morality
Last but not least, it’s time to realize that every interaction with China, be it a sporting event, a commercial transaction, or a cultural exchange, can quickly become a test of an organization’s morality. The CCP has taken on a “whole of society” approach and compelled all of society to follow the party’s orders. Sooner or later, all involved must choose whether to side with human rights and human dignity or an oppressive authoritarian regime.
Enes Kanter Freedom, center for the Boston Celtics and an outspoken human rights activist, wrote that freedom “must be defended at all costs.” We must “wake up and speak up. Change is coming, and no one can stop it. They can’t silence us all.” The WTA and its star athletes have shown us the way.