The Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai sits in a crowded restaurant surrounded by friends and her coach, who is going through next year’s training plan with her. ‘Tomorrow is November 20th’, he says, in a seeming non-sequitur. ‘No, tomorrow is the 21st’, one of her friends corrects him. ‘Oh yes, oh yes, the 21st’.
This bizarre scene takes place in a new video released by several state-sources in China this afternoon, with one source even tagging the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic, Marin Cillic and others on Twitter.
— 丁力 (@li_ding1) November 20, 2021
The message of the video is clear. Peng Shuai – the tennis player who has been missing since she accused the former Chinese vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, of raping her in 2018 – is safe and the tennis world needs to calm down.
If the forced mention of tomorrow’s date didn’t set alarm bells ringing, the clip begins with someone off screen saying ‘Okay Okay, now is perfect’. This is followed by a couple of seconds of silence where Peng Shuai laughs awkwardly, before the coach launches into his remarks. The entire thing seems scripted; and the presence of the director’s cue at the beginning of the clip is laughably amateurish.
Except none of this is funny. On November 2 Peng Shuai accused Zhang Gaoli of rape in an emotional and harrowing Weibo statement. Her post was taken down by censors within two minutes, but not fast enough for the screenshot to travel around the world.
Since then, Peng’s Weibo account has been taken down and she hadn’t been heard from until today. Concerns grew about her safety after a bizarre email was released by state media earlier this week, purportedly written by Peng to the Women’s Tennis Association. ‘I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine’, the email read. Nobody – inside or outside of China – believed this was written by Peng (not least because the cursor blinking in the photograph of the email suggested it was still being edited).
This is hysterical amateurism – but all the more sinister for it. In the last few days, global tennis stars have come to Peng’s defence using the hashtag ‘WhereIsPengShuai’. The WTA has also made it clear that unless they receive proof that Peng is safe, they will cancel their events in China next year. The UN and US government have also demanded that Peng’s whereabouts are confirmed.
When they first silenced Peng Shuai, Chinese censors probably had no idea that the fate of a single sportswoman and her private life would turn into such a high-profile disaster. But with each ham-fisted attempt to assure the world about her safety, they have made the story seem more sinister and bizarre. The chances are that Peng Shuai has been put under house arrest since her explosive statement, with every means of independent communication taken away from her. But until Weibo reinstates her account and the Chinese police are allowed to take her allegations seriously, nobody will believe that she is really, fully safe.
As this story keeps snowballing, it wouldn’t be surprising if China’s state media continues to come up with more bizarre ‘proof of life’ videos over the next few days. But the damage is done and the question is whether any damage limitation exercise from China will be enough. Eventually, the government may need to consider sacrificing Zhang Gaoli – and investigate the allegations against him – in order to truly end the backlash.