Analysis: Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has been seen in public. But this is why worries don’t go away

Since friday night a constant stream of photos and videos On a blocked platform in China, they appeared on Twitter purporting to show a smiling Peng about her life in Beijing, all posted by people working for the Chinese government-controlled media and the state sports system.
The apparent propaganda push was followed Sunday by a videocall between Peng and the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, during which the three-time Olympian insisted that she is “safe and sound, living at home in Beijing” and “would like her privacy to be respected” , according to a statement. of the IOC.
The flood of “proof of life” videos came amid a storm of global concern for Peng, who disappeared from the public eye for more than two weeks after taking to social media to accuse former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her. to have sex at home. – an explosive and politically sensitive indictment that sparked widespread censorship in China.

While Peng’s public reappearances may allay some of the worst fears about his immediate safety and well-being, they have failed to quell broader concerns about his freedoms and growing calls for a full investigation into his sexual assault allegations.

“It was good to see Peng Shuai in recent videos, but they do not alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion,” a spokeswoman for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) told CNN. in a statement, following Peng’s call with the IOC.

Human rights defenders who have long followed Beijing’s silencing campaigns are also not convinced.

“What we have here is essentially a state-controlled narrative: only the government and its affiliated media are generating and distributing the content on Peng’s story,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“While Peng may be fine, the story of the Chinese government disappearing people and then recording videos of them to show they are unharmed when, in fact, the opposite is true, we should be concerned for Peng’s safety,” he said. additional.

The video clips appear to be specifically crafted, albeit crudely, to show that Peng is “free” and leads a “normal” life.

In images released Saturday, Peng was seen having dinner with several people who state media reporters have described as “her coach and friends.” The clips made repeated and deliberate references to the dates, while Peng continued to nod at the man speaking beside her, saying nothing.

None of the videos made the slightest mention of Peng’s sexual assault allegations against Zhang. Instead, they focused on their smiles and apparent good humor, which state media propagandists were eager to highlight.

WTA chief says new video of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai 'insufficient' to ensure her safety
“Can any girl fake such a cheery smile under pressure?” asked Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the state tabloid Global Times, in a cheep On Sunday, accompanying a clip of a smiling Peng signing oversized children’s tennis balls at a youth tennis match in Beijing.

“Those who suspect that Peng Shuai is under pressure, how shady they must be in. There must be many, many forced political performances in their countries,” Hu wrote on Twitter.

The Global Times, like other government-controlled media outlets in China, has made no reference to Peng’s apparent disappearance, or to his accusations against Zhang. Hu has also been careful on Twitter not to mention why Peng is in the spotlight, referring to him only indirectly as “what people talked about”.

The Chinese authorities have not acknowledged Peng’s allegations against Zhang and there is no indication that an investigation is underway. It is unclear whether Peng has reported his allegations to the police.

At a press conference on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian reiterated that Peng’s accusation is not a diplomatic issue and declined to comment further.

Zhang has kept a low profile and vanished from public life since his retirement in 2018, and there is no public information regarding his current whereabouts.

Skepticism about Peng’s well-being is especially high among Chinese activists who have closely watched how the government has silenced and coerced their peers.

“The reality is that they have a great deal of control over Peng Shuai, to the extent that it is enough to make her cooperate and become an actress,” alleged Lv Pin, a prominent Chinese feminist who now lives in New York.

“This has happened in many cases in the past. Many ‘criminals’ who were forced to confess on television had to make their performances look real,” he said, referring to a series of forced confessions broadcast on state televisionlike those of Chinese human rights lawyers and Hong Kong booksellers.
Women's tennis is defying the Chinese government, and showing no signs of backing down

So far, Chinese authorities have chosen not to put Peng on state television, perhaps aware that his presence, even only on their English-language platforms, would run counter to ongoing efforts to censor all discussions of his allegations. originals and therefore raise more questions within China than the answers.

Instead, Peng appeared on a 30-minute video call with IOC officials, accompanied and under close surveillance by a Chinese sports official who previously served as Communist Party secretary of the General Sports Administration Tennis Administration Center. from China.

Chinese state media have not reported the interview. But on its website, the IOC posted a statement and a photo of the call. He did not post the full video, nor did he explain the circumstances surrounding the virtual meeting, including how it was organized.

And it appears that IOC officials walked away from the meeting, publicly at least, concluding that Peng is fine.

“I was relieved to see that Peng Shuai was doing well, which was our main concern,” said IOC Athletes Commission President Emma Terho, who joined the video call along with Li Lingwei, the Chinese sports official.

By drawing quick conclusions about Peng’s current status and avoiding any mention of his sexual assault allegations that sparked all the controversy, analysts say the IOC is risking its own credibility and potentially risks becoming an accessory to the campaign of Beijing propaganda.

“The call from the IOC does not alleviate our concerns for Peng’s welfare or safety,” said HRW’s Wang.

“Indeed, the question arises as to why the IOC appears to be engaging in what is essentially a state-controlled narrative, as only the government and its affiliated media can tell Peng’s story.”

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