The International Olympic Committee held a news conference Thursday in Beijing for its president, Thomas Bach. He also could have doubled as Chinese Communist Party spokesman.
Bach is a smart guy. A 68-year old German lawyer who speaks four languages and has run the vast, complicated IOC for nearly a decade.
He is certainly too smart of a guy to not know what he was doing when he tried to give reasonable answers to human rights controversies but used the precise kind of language favored by China, who is hosting these Winter Games.
“What he said, sounded almost exactly like it was written by Beijing,” William Nee of the Chinese Human Rights Defender, and formerly an analyst for Amnesty International, told Yahoo Sports.
Start with Bach stating that while in Beijing, he would like to meet with Peng Shuai, the Chinese professional tennis player who in November accused a political leader of sexual assault only to disappear from public life for long stretches.
The 36-year-old former World No. 1 in doubles tennis wrote on social media on Nov. 2 that former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted her.
There was then no public sighting of her for three weeks, raising alarm around the world. That included Amnesty International, the United Nations and sports organizations, including the Women’s Tennis Association, which suspended all events in China and demanded a “full, fair and transparent investigation.”
Eventually photos of Peng were released on social media. Peng later stated that no one had raped her, the post was misunderstood and she sought privacy while resting with family. The IOC set up a video conference where Peng reiterated she was safe, but that action alone was condemned by human rights officials as playing into Chinese propaganda.
Any meeting at these Olympics would likely be the same.
The topic of Peng is so taboo in China that The New York Times reported that translators at Thursday’s news conference did not repeat her name when translating questions about her into various languages.
Bach wouldn’t even demand an investigation. He said he would ask Peng if she wanted an investigation.
“If she wants to have an inquiry, of course we would support her in this, but it must be her decision,” Bach said, “It’s her life. It’s her allegations.
“We have had the allegations and we have heard the withdrawal,” Bach said of Peng. “We will have this personal meeting and there we will continue this conversation.”
Bach is well aware that Peng is not in a position to ask for an IOC investigation. The power dynamic is so incredibly lopsided that saying almost anything, let alone demanding or requesting an investigation, puts both her and her family’s safety in danger.
It shouldn’t be on her to demand action. It should be on Bach, who for these brief three weeks while the Olympics play out actually has a measure of influence over a Chinese government that wants the Games to run smoothly.
“He does have leverage to help her,” Nee said.
Yet the meeting is more likely to be just a show, Bach serving as either a willing pawn or a useful idiot.
“Anytime we have seen Peng Shuai in public it is in a photo or video released by Chinese state media,” Nee said. “When you see her, she is always surrounded by other people. At this meeting, Thomas Bach likely would be asking her if she wants an investigation in front of state security, whether he knows it or not.”
Perhaps worse, Bach’s specific language Thursday sends a clear message to Peng that his motives may not be clean. By mentioning the “withdrawal,” he lends credence to what very likely was a forced retraction. By bringing it up, it presents a situation where Peng is looking at the IOC president as someone she would need to reconvince of her charges.
Bach could have tried to set up a meeting with far less loaded comments. Instead he continued on and played into the Chinese narrative that all with Peng is good.
“We know from her explanations during the video conferences that she is living here in Beijing,” he said. “She is reporting that she can move freely, that she is spending time with her family and friends.”
None of that is truly known. Having Thomas Bach, an authority figure representing the West, stating Peng “can move freely” and is “spending time with her family and friends” is absolute gold for the Chinese government.
“It’s shocking,” Nee said. “His behavior is shocking.”
While it might be asking a lot for Bach to go full critic of the host country, it doesn’t mean he needs to play into Chinese propaganda.
Bach was also asked about the treatment of the Uyghurs, an ethic minority of Muslims living in the Xinjiang region of China. International organizations, human rights advocacy groups and Western governments including the United States allege that China has, since 2014, engaged in genocide, forced sterilization, slavery and mass imprisonment against the Uyghurs.
It means the Olympics are being staged – this very month – in a country where slavery and genocide are occurring. It's abhorrent, and that’s beyond allegations of similar treatment of Tibetans, Hong Kong pro-democracy advocates and others.
Bach simply brushed it aside as “politics.”
“The position of the IOC must be, given the political neutrality, that we are not commenting on political issues,” Bach said. “Because otherwise, if we are taking a political standpoint, we are getting in the middle of tensions and disputes and confrontations between political powers.”
Slavery and genocide are mere political issues? Well, that’s how CCP leaders frame the conflict with the Uyghurs because it allows them to point fingers at political discord in other countries and make this seem reasonable, common even.
“You have to try very hard to look at this and not know what is going on,” Nee said.
Thomas Bach sure seems to be trying just that hard.