The International Olympics Committee (IOC) on Thursday tried to play down fears for the safety of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, sparking criticism from rights activists who said her recent video calls with its officials were highly likely to have been staged, scripted and made under duress, in a manner similar to televised confessions on state-run media.
Its comments came as the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) suspended all tournaments in China, saying that officials there had failed to prove that Peng is genuinely free, and hadn’t responded to calls for an investigation into Peng’s allegations of sexual assault against a former vice premier.
The IOC, which is facing growing calls for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, said it had offered “wide-ranging support” to Peng in a second video call on Dec. 1.
“Yesterday, an IOC team held another video call with [Peng,] the organization said in a statement on its website. “We have offered her wide-ranging support, will stay in regular touch with her, and have already agreed on a personal meeting in January.”
It said Peng had “appeared to be safe and well, given the difficult situation she is in.”
“We continue to be concerned about her personal situation and will continue to support her,” it said, but made no mention of the now-deleted Nov. 2 sexual assault allegations that prompted her sequestration from friends and family.
Rights activist Peter Dahlin, who has himself been the subject of a forced, televised “confession” while in the custody of China’s state security police, hit out at the statement with an artist’s impression of the set-up during his own staged and scripted ordeal.
“Dear #IOC @athlete365 here is me being ‘safe and well and speaking freely, to help CCP counter international criticism,” Dahlin tweeted on Thursday. “This was the part cameras didn’t show.”
He added: “You should be ashamed of yourself. #WhereIsPengShuai”
The IOC’s second video call came as the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) announced it would suspend all tennis tournaments in China, citing ongoing concerns about Peng’s health and safety, and noting that her original allegation that former vice premier Zhang Gaoli forced her into a sexual relationship wasn’t being investigated.
“In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault,” WTA CEO Steve Simon said in a Dec. 1 statement announcing the suspension.
“Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”
Simon said he admired Peng’s “strength and courage” for going public with the allegations while knowing she could be acting “self-destructively.”
He said the WTA had given Chinese officials the opportunity to cease their censorship of Peng and to prove that she is free and able to speak without interference or intimidation, and to investigate her allegations.
“Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way,” Simon said. “While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation.”
“We repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation – without censorship – into Peng Shuai’s sexual assault accusation,” he said.
China dismisses criticism
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin dismissed the WTA’s comments on Thursday, saying: “China has always firmly opposed the politicization of sporting events.”
State broadcaster CGTN cited the Chinese Tennis Association as expressing “indignation and resolute opposition” to the decision, saying it was basing the decision on “fictitious information,” and would hurt the future chances of female players.
Wang Dazhao, a senior sports reporter at the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s People’s Daily newspaper said he wondered if the whole WTA had decided the matter, or just Simon.
“If it’s a matter of a single individual, then this decision will hamper the development of the sport,” he said.
Comments on China’s Weibo social media platform in support of the WTA were quickly deleted, according to a brief survey conducted by RFA on Thursday afternoon.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) China researcher Wang Yaqiu said the WTA has long been seen as a champion of women’s rights.
“People have grown so used to international organizations and multinational corporations not daring to speak out on human rights issue in China, and feeling so threatened that they daren’t oppose the Chinese government because they might not be able to do business in China,” Wang told RFA.
“This time, the WTA is making kind of a counter-threat, saying that they won’t hold tournaments in China unless they improve their human rights record,” she said.
Veteran tennis star Billie Jean King tweeted her approval on Thursday, too.
“I applaud Steve Simon & the @WTA leadership for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China & around the world,” she wrote on her Twitter account. “The WTA is on the right side of history in supporting our players.”
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.