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The IOC says Peng Shuai is safe. Experts say the IOC has become a vehicle for Chinese propaganda

·7 min read
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  • Shuai Peng
    Shuai Peng
    Chinese female tennis player (1986-)
  • Thomas Bach
    Thomas Bach
    German fencer and sports official, president of the IOC

The International Olympic Committee’s attempt to assure the world that Peng Shuai is safe was not only insufficient evidence of her well-being, it was, according to experts and activists, a “harmful,” “disturbing” and “active” amplification of Chinese propaganda, one that made the IOC “complicit” in China’s silencing of Peng’s sexual assault allegations.

The IOC, in a Sunday statement, described a video call between Peng and IOC president Thomas Bach. It represented Peng’s first verified communication with the Western world since she accused Zhang Gaoli, a former Chinese Communist Party vice premier, of coercing her into sex. And it proved that Peng is alive.

But the call, said Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, appeared “highly orchestrated” and “staged.” In fact, it fell in line with a pattern: The Chinese government, Wang and others said, has a long history of silencing high-profile dissenters and “erasing inconvenient truths,” then forcing the oppressed to appear on video to recant allegations, admit to crimes or tell the public that they are safe and well.

"Given the context,” Wang said of Sunday’s IOC call, “it's highly unlikely this is done out of Peng Shuai's free will."

The details released by the IOC “don't mean that she's not in detention,” said Zumretay Arkin, a Uyghur human rights activist. “It doesn't mean that she was not coerced to do this.”

In this case, experts suspect the Chinese government essentially used the IOC as its mouthpiece, its platform to credibly communicate with the world. Wang said it’s “very likely” that the call was arranged by the Chinese government — or at least, she said, “all the circumstances point to ... the involvement of the Chinese government.”

An IOC spokesperson, in an emailed statement, declined to provide details about the arrangement, saying only that the "main purpose of the call was to enquire about the well-being and safety of Peng Shuai." Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, mentioned the possibility that the IOC initiated plans. Either way, Richardson accused the IOC and Chinese government of “collaborat[ing] to make a difficult, unpleasant story go away.”

Others pointed out that China and the IOC share a primary incentive. “It is not to express profound concern about allegations of sexual assault, and a commitment to taking them incredibly seriously,” Richardson said. Instead, she explained, it’s to ensure that Peng’s allegations, and China’s subsequent erasure, don’t cloud the Beijing Olympics in February.

The IOC released an image of president Thomas Bach speaking with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. (IOC)
The IOC released an image of president Thomas Bach speaking with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. (IOC)

IOC's call with Peng Shuai raises 'red flags'

On Nov. 2, in the minutes after Peng, a Chinese tennis star, detailed Zhang’s alleged assault, Chinese authorities launched a comprehensive campaign to scrub her allegations from the internet. Peng’s original post, on Chinese social media platform Weibo, was deleted. Related web searches were blocked. Peng then lost contact with the outside world. Steve Simon, the head of the Women’s Tennis Association, has tried and failed to reach her. Prominent athletes and politicians expressed their concern, and called on China to investigate.

China’s state-controlled media responded by releasing a supposed email, photos and videos that proclaimed to prove Peng’s well-being. Experts doubted the evidence’s authenticity and suspected coercion. And they now see the IOC’s statements as an extension of this sketchy propaganda.

“The IOC is participating in this government-constructed narrative of Peng Shuai's freedom,” Wang said.

Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the Chinese government-controlled Global Times, who posted two of the videos depicting Peng, promoted news of Sunday’s call, and said Monday in a follow-up tweet: “For those who truly care about safety of Peng Shuai, her appearances of these days are enough to relieve them or eliminate most of their worries.”

On Tuesday, in the Chinese government's most direct comments yet on Peng's case, a foreign ministry spokesman cited the IOC call, and said: "I think some people should stop deliberately and maliciously hyping up ... this issue."

For experts, though, the IOC’s statement raised what Arkin calls “red flags.” Among them was the presence of Li Lingwei, a Chinese Olympic official, on the call. Arkin, upon reading this, immediately drew “a lot of similarities to coerced statements that Uyghurs have to make.” She was referring to the majority-Muslim ethnic group in northwest China that the CCP has allegedly subjected to genocide. She clarified that she didn’t know what Peng had been subjected to. But “definitely, there's this mental and psychological threat,” Arkin said. “I don't think that she's free to say what she wants.”

Another red flag, experts said, was the IOC’s refusal to even mention Peng’s accusations. In doing so, the advocacy group Global Athlete said in a statement, “IOC president Thomas Bach and the IOC Athletes’ Commission demonstrate an abhorrent indifference to sexual violence and the well-being of female athletes.”

That refusal, experts pointed out, also fell in line with China’s erasure. Hu, the Global Times editor, referred to Peng’s allegations as “the thing people talked about.” As the WTA and others have repeatedly called for an investigation into the alleged assault, the IOC has not acknowledged it.

“The language that was used [in Sunday’s IOC statement],” Arkin said, “was very similar to what the Chinese government would say.”

Is the IOC collaborating with China?

Those similarities, experts pointed out, are not new. Ever since it awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics to Beijing, the IOC hasn’t been “responsive” to human rights concerns, Wang said. “They have given us no indication that they have carried out human rights due diligence regarding anything related to the Beijing Olympics. So we feel they have failed to uphold human rights commitments.

“But I think yesterday's incident was different in the sense that they are now actively participating in collaborating with the Chinese government,” Wang said. For years, experts pointed out, the IOC passively hid behind a veil of political neutrality. Now, it is appearing to take a political side, “actively helping China to cover up the story,” Arkin said.

“This is a whole new low,” Richardson said. “I didn't know we could go this low. It's a Marianas Trench of lowness.”

So what, exactly, should the IOC do?

To start, Richardson and Wang said, they should retract Sunday’s statement and “immediately apologize.” Or, Richardson said, they “urgently need to explain the circumstances of the call,” who brokered it, why details were so sparse and why Bach, of all the people who have tried to contact Peng since Nov. 2, was seemingly the first outside China to get a response.

“As a normal person, if you are afraid and everybody was worried about you, you want to talk to those [worried] people directly, right?” Wang said.

The IOC spokesperson declined to address these questions, and instead reiterated portions of Sunday's statement. In it, the IOC said that Peng “would like to have her privacy respected at this time,” and that “she prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now.”

Experts, though, explained that there is no way to know whether Peng actually said that or, if she did, whether she was coerced into saying it. Wang suspected, based on decades of experience, that “her movement, or her activities, are highly constrained or controlled. And she's being monitored and surveilled. Whatever she appears to be doing is on the watch of the Chinese government.”

Various experts, athlete advocates and sports organizations have also urged the IOC to support a transparent investigation into Peng’s claims.

Until it does, Global Athlete said in its statement, the “IOC’s actions ... demonstrate that the organization fails athletes, aligns with abusive authoritarian regimes, and disregards human rights.”

They also “send a message,” Richardson said, “not just to Peng Shuai, but to other women across China struggling to get credible allegations of sexual assault or sexual harassment or sexual violence heard and investigated and prosecuted.

“The message they take is not only that organizations like the IOC won't help them, or can't help them; they're going to help their abusers.”