No Exception for “Princess of China”: China’s Silencing of Peng Shuai

Editor’s note: I am proud to share this excellent piece, on the global fallout and sport-governance implications of tennis star Peng Shuai’s accusations against China’s former Vice Premier, Zhang Gaoli. The author who wishes to remain anonymous. I can vouch 100% for the author’s expertise on the subject.–Tolga


*Habitually for Chinese names, the family name precedes the given name, and they are written as such in this article. For example, for Peng Shuai, Peng is the family name, and Shuai is the given name.

**ATP = Association of Tennis Players (men’s professional circuit); WTA = Women’s Tennis Association (women’s professional circuit); ITF = International Tennis Federation (international governing body of tennis, organizer of Grand Slams, Olympic/Regional Games tennis events, and low-tier professional events, and enforcer of anti-doping rules); IOC = International Olympic Committee.

Chapter I Peng Shuai and the Rise of China’s Women’s Tennis

On the world stage, Chinese tennis has always effectively been Chinese women’s tennis. Compared to the men from the world’s most populated country, none of whom has broken into the top 100 in ATP ranking, Chinese women have won, on top of numerous WTA tour-level trophies, 2 singles titles (Li Na, ’11 Roland Garros & ’14 Australian Open), 6 women’s doubles titles (Zheng Jie & Yan Zi, ’06 Australian Open & Wimbledon; Peng Shuai, ’13 Wimbledon & ’14 Roland Garros; Zhang Shuai, ’19 Australian Open & ’21 U.S. Open), and 1 Mixed Doubles title (Sun Tiantian, ’08 Australian Open) at Grand Slam events. The takeoff of Chinese women’s tennis, however, was not linear; rather, it was Peng Shuai’s – and Li Na’s – “trouble-making” in 2005 that led to the loosening of the state’s complete control over tennis players and expedited these women’s historic ascent.

When Sun Tiantian and Li Ting surprisingly won the women’s doubles gold medal at the Athens Olympic Games and when Li Na won a Chinese players’ first ever WTA tour-level singles title, both in 2004, the managerial approach that the Chinese Tennis Association and the Chinese National Team employed with elite tennis players was hardly different from how the weightlifters or the archers were managed. The country’s best players competed in the professional circuit but were hardly professionals: they had little freedom in tournament selection, had to skip Grand Slam and other events to compete in the National Games, were required to turn in all prize money, and could not choose their own coaching staff. In all fairness, it was a much freer system than its 1980s rendition, which was centered on Asian Games performances (tennis was not reinstated in the Olympic Games until 1988) and famously led to the defection of Hu Na in 1983 (which triggered a drastic cooldown of arguably the first honeymoon period of the U.S.-P.R.C. relations); but it was outdated, unincentivizing, and failing the country’s talents.

In 2005, both Peng and Li (unless specified, Li hereafter stands for Li Na) spoke out—quite vehemently—about the limitations of said sport management model on their professional pursuits. That year, all China’s elite women were forced to skip Wimbledon to play for their provincial teams at the National Games, but both Peng (representing Tianjin) and Li (representing Hubei) lost to Zheng Jie (representing Sichuan) in different events. They yearned to “fly solo”—that is, to have sufficient autonomy over their career paths and to become a real professional player. However, what they faced was a Soviet-style system that had been operating with few changes over decades, one that emphasized preparing to fight for national glory at the Olympic Games, and crushed any attempt to break free (Yao Ming’s joining the Houston Rockets in 2002 both was and was not an exception). The clash between Peng (and Li) and the state sport officials led to a loaded quote from Sun Jinfang, then Director of the Tennis Management Center of General Administration of Sport of China and former captain of China’s Asian Games volleyball champion team: Does she (Peng) think she is (Maria) Sharapova?… I will let her fly solo as soon as she signs a pledge to win the gold medal (at the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games)! At the same time, like many other rising young talents, Peng did not have the mightiest mental power on court, as demonstrated by many upsets and comebacks against her, which along with Sun’s criticism and untimely injuries, tanked her 2006 season.

Ironically, Sun Jinfang was later hailed as Chinese tennis’s pioneer for allowing said top-tier athletes some autonomy after the 2008 Beijing Olympics (the experiment was still controversial at the time and attracted criticism from several top sport officials), from which Peng, along with the other players mentioned above, benefited enormously. Li Na especially stood out: as she rose to her peak in the early 2010s, marked by her two historic Grand Slam singles titles, Li retained her hot temper and straightforwardness, which tennis fans of the world grew to know, and was both revered and criticized for her continued defiance of the state-run system. Meanwhile, Peng lost her youthful sharpness over time and was growing more low-profile both on and off court. Interestingly, Peng is a rare powerful, double-handed forehand player, but her playing style became increasingly defensive over the years. Even her on-court manner grew increasingly meek: she never yelled or shouted and would simply celebrate a hard-fought point with a nod or a raised fist to herself. Great achievements came: she won two doubles majors (along with Hsieh Su-wei from Taiwan) and rose to the top of WTA doubles ranking, became a U.S. Open singles semifinalist in 2014, and eventually won two WTA singles titles, but many contend that she could have risen higher and faster. Fans nicknamed her “Princess of China,” and its implications are twofold: one the one hand, her career achievements were undoubtedly celebrated and deemed to boost China’s national pride; on the other, however, she was constantly under the shadow of Li, rendering her the tennis princess instead of the tennis queen. Overtime, state media also co-opted this nickname.

Moreover, Peng appeared to strengthen her ties with the state sport authority. On multiple occasions, she praised and thanked Sun Jinfang’s leadership; her team began to include coaches, trainers, and doctors of the national team, especially as she was plagued by injuries towards the end of her professional career. She represented China three times in the Olympic Games (’08, ’12, and ’16), made multiple Fed Cup (now Billie Jean King Cup) appearances, and won singles and team gold medals at the 2010 Asian Games, not to mention sweeping two rounds of singles, doubles, mixed doubles, and team gold medals at the 2009 and 2013 National Games. She was certainly “patriotic” by the Communist Party government’s standard: in addition to Olympic Games and Asian Games appearances, she always added her benign wishes for the motherland; she and Hsieh’s doubles success was celebrated as a model of cross-Taiwan Strait collaboration; and she even called out a journalist for labelling Taiwan as a country during a press conference—yes, with Hsieh seated right next to her (Peng and Hsieh’s fallout in 2019, however, was not political but over coaching team arrangement).

Indeed, even though she was sent to a Florida tennis camp in her junior years, and even though she was a global tennis star with a history of clashing with Chinese tennis authority, Peng has always been deeply connected to her roots. She often talked about her love for Chinese food and sought out Chinese restaurants while on tour overseas—the spicier, the better. She was deeply interested in traditional Chinese culture and even enrolled in a “Guo Xue” program at the Renmin (“People’s”) University that centered on traditional Chinese culture and philosophy studies. Even her controversial 3-month ban by the Tennis Integrity Unit resulted from a typical Chinese maneuver: in 2018, Peng wanted to switch doubles partners after having already signed up for Wimbledon with Alison Van Uytvanck from Belgium, who did not agree to do so, so she offered to compensate the Belgian with some of her prize money in exchange for the latter’s withdrawal. Van Uytvanck’s coach reported this incident to the TIU, and the Belgian herself retired just before their doubles match. Peng later expressed that it was simply a gesture of goodwill, but the TIU decided it was an act of match-fixing. Peng felt wronged, but rules were rules: luckily, she won two low-tier tournaments as soon as the ban expired.

Chapter II Peng’s Two Disappearances

Peng Shuai vanished from the public eye. Not just recently, after the much publicized and soon-censored post, but before—for more than a year. During most of 2019, her attempts at a comeback from a series of major surgeries had not been very successful: she managed to win some doubles titles but had certainly lost previous competitiveness on the singles side. She continued trying, stating that it was out of her love for the sport—even though her back would no longer allow her to play at a full capacity—but she also wanted to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games because she was more than capable of securing a spot for playing the doubles for China. But then came the pandemic: the WTA tour was suspended, and the Tokyo Games were rescheduled to 2021. After failing to qualify for the main draw of the Doha Open, she went off the grid—until her November 2, 2021 Weibo post. 

That is what I first thought when my friend texted me about Peng’s short-lived post, which I had missed. Thinking that I could finally see what she had been up to during her disappearance and speculating that she was finally going to announce her retirement, I was in utter shock when I finally found a screenshot on Twitter. For decades, there had been rumors about entertainment and sport celebrities being entangled with—if not coerced into entanglement with—high-level Communist Party officials and state leaders. However, Peng’s first-person account was indeed first of its kind. Her statement was genuine, graphic, and bone-chilling, detailing how vulnerable a global tennis star was in front of the power of a state leader; and, of course, the censorship machine was fast, omnipresent, and deafening, leaving no trace of “Peng Shuai” in the Simplified Chinese web within 30 minutes.

To be clear: what Peng described in her post was not “an affair”—even though she admitted to developing affections for her abuser—but a typical sexual assault followed by continuing sexual harassment and exploitation grounded in extremely lopsided political power and enabled by several accomplices (including Zhang’s wife and chauffeur), and Peng was courageous enough in simply putting her experience into words and hitting the “post” button. However, I doubt she was aware that the post would trigger a global whirlwind or the WTA’s withdrawal from the Chinese market at the time. She probably did not even realize then what she described was, but wrote the content from the perspective of a desperate mistress who had lost it all and was determined to avenge herself through an exposé (I personally also suspect, based on the “intense fight” and talks of being “a deserving mother”mentioned in the post, that Peng resorted to going public after a fiery discussion about whether or not to terminate her pregnancy). Likewise, the censoring of her post was likely not because it detailed years of sexual criminal history, but simply because it aired an affair of a supposedly morally uncompromisable, saint-like state leader, let alone through the first-person account of a highly recognizable public figure. Therefore, while it is without a doubt that the state forced Peng to make public appearances and accept a few interviews (and regurgitating rehearsed or pre-approved statements) later on, she might not be lying after all when she said that her intention was misunderstood.

Yet the post was not misinterpreted, and it does not matter what Peng’s initial intention was. In fact, Chinese feminists, who already exist on the fringe due to governmental crackdown, as well as the broader international tennis and sport community, were more than justified in labeling Peng’s suffering as it is—sexual assault and exploitation—and calling out the Chinese government for its inaction outside of censorship and the coverup. As a result, an unbridgable gap exists between the world’s and the Chinese government’s perceptions of the matter: for the world—not just Western world—it is a women’s rights issue before that of the Chinese political system; but for the Communist government, because of the involvement of a former vice premier and Politburo member, it is the other way around. For Beijing, a state leader can be weeded out for corruption—over which the Party can reap an anti-corruption victory—but cannot be tarnished “simply” by accusations of moral corruption, which could only confirm long-existing rumors about CPC officials in society and is feared to shake up the sociopolitical stability of the nation which has been under one-party rule for over seven decades. No exception can be made for Peng, even if state propaganda hailed her as the tennis “princess of China” just less than ten years ago.

If Peng’s abuser was any other man of a lower political echelon, her post would likely remain in existence—and there might have been an investigation. While the spread of feminist ideas on the Internet causes increasing concerns for the Chinese government and is often smeared to be funded by “anti-China rival forces overseas,” there have been more cases of sexual misconduct being exposed to the public, though often not without pushback or victim shaming. The most recent example is Li Jinglei, ex-wife of Chinese/Taiwanese-American pop star Wang Leehom, accusing the latter of long-time infidelity and involvement in prostitution and receiving the support of even All-China Women’s Federation, a governmental organization. Thanks to the rising popularity of stand-up comedy, criticism of the traditional gender roles and normalized gender inequity also seem to be tolerated to some extent, assumingly as long as it does not sow substantial “division” and “hostility” between the two sexes. However, the identity of the accused in Peng’s case precluded any discussion over substance, and the only thing Beijing would do—and did—was censor information domestically (Weibo likely willingly censored the post even before any official intervention) and cover up and revise history overseas (at first only through information from state media, then co-opting Peng’s public appearances). Baidu’s Tennis Bar, an online tennis forum with arguably the most active Chinese users, still prohibits any new posts or replies to this day. Ironically, the date of the most recently published posts, November 2, constantly reminds users of what transpired on that day.

Chapter III WTA Tour and 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games

What the WTA has done in the past month is nothing but remarkable. Giving up its Chinese market, even temporarily, in exchange for an impossible investigation is a huge sacrifice to make for a global business. In addition, some noted that its official live streaming partner in mainland China, iQiyi, has suspended or exited the partnership. However, it is not without precedent: the NBA was technically forced to leave the mainland China market for almost a year after Houston Rockets’ then-General Manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted in support of the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, irking the Chinese government and people, who were led to believe that the protestors were effectively separatists) in 2019. Of course, it should be noted that the WTA’s suspension of tournaments in mainland China and Hong Kong is a proactive and sound business decision. It is not just that most elite players would now likely choose not to play in China, despite the highest prize money offered in the Asia swing, especially with the biggest stars having spoken out in support of Peng. More relevantly, the now two-year long pandemic led local governments of China, with the country’s strict entry and exit policies, to suspend most international sporting events in its territory and effectively break their million-dollar contracts with sport organizations, including the WTA, the ATP, and the ITF. This could explain the ATP’s decision to not suspend tournaments in China: they will probably remain suspended in the near future anyway. In addition, the legalization of sport betting and the general anti-Beijing rhetoric in Western politics likely emboldened the WTA as well.

Will the WTA’s boycott of China work, though? Most likely not. The aforementioned gap between (official) Chinese and international perceptions of the case of Peng means that WTA is technically leaving an already suspended market hoping to shake up the foundation of the Chinese political system: the moral incorruptibility of its leaders. Again, investigating and prosecuting sexual misconduct might be difficult, but it is not impossible. What is truly impossible—or rather, what must be made impossible—is a morally compromised state leader “only” in his private life. Will the WTA eventually reconcile with Beijing? Most likely yes. The ongoing, seemingly endless pandemic is the best buffer—who knows what will happen through official and private channels during the suspension of the Chinese tournament and what deal could be concocted. A likely short to mid-term compromise, based on the previous NBA-China fallout, might be no ground operation (tournaments) but an alternative live streaming deal with a non-state streaming service provider. This might be a win-win after all: in all fairness, most tournaments in China had been losing money, despite the generous payout to the tennis organizations and the players (local governments were keen to host international events to raise international recognition, but the pandemic makes this means improbable).

In contrast, the IOC’s approach—vastly different from the WTA’s—drew much criticism, and reasonably so. Peng’s case is not a stand-alone issue haunting the 2022 Winter Games to be held in Beijing—China’s overall abysmal human rights record has long generated voices against awarding mega-sporting events with high political benefits for the authoritarian government. However, with enormous revenues at stake, the IOC is practically unable to divest: in fact, as many sport scholars rightfully point out, Lausanne embraces the conveniences associated with authoritarian governments (and temporary democracy-suppressing measures in democratic countries). Bob Costas was certainly not wrong when he commented on CNN that Lausanne and Beijing are in the same bed. Aware of the political barrier to an investigation of Peng’s accusation, the IOC could only show concerns and inquire about Peng’s general wellbeing without touching on the more “sensitive” part of her post—the culpability of a Communist Party leader—hence the “gesture” that we have all witnessed where Thomas Bach, IOC President, talked to Peng, accompanied by Chinese officials, over video. Oh, and (not so) poor Dick Pound, whose ensuing public defense of Bach and the IOC’s participation in China’s blatant PR campaign seemed to only generate another round of ridicule of the mishap that is his name.

Nonetheless, I should caution the suggestion of a total divestment from the Beijing Games, as it could be a tricky strategy. Many have argued for the case of elite athletes of most winter sports, who have devoted their lives to Olympic participation. I would point out another aspect of the matter: for decades, the Olympic Games (and most sporting events in general) have played a critical role in connecting the Chinese people to the world. Surely the Chinese government spared to effort to take advantage of participating in and hosting the Games to boast its then growing and now towering power, especially towards its own people; yet for a people with few alternative news sources other than an increasingly self-isolating Chinese government, live sporting events, no matter how small a peeping hole, are one of the few opportunities for them to view the outside world with few kowtowing foreign governments with China relations at stake. The point of this sidebar is, while the IOC is culpable in its failure to condemn Beijing’s human rights abuse and anti-democracy policies, there is long-term value in the organization’s maintaining benign relations and leveraging its bargaining power with China. After all, it is the first international organization to persuade China to technically coexist with Taiwan in an international organization; and it was indeed the first to successfully request Peng’s public appearance. However, it does make me wonder whether the IOC carefully weighed its leverage and sought the right buttons to push: it might not be able to end the atrocities in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, but it could make more changes in Peng’s (smaller) universe.

Although I am pessimistic about the prospect of an official investigation into Peng’s accusation and Zhang’s sexual misconducts, I would like to think that the international society’s concern at least guarantees Peng’s physical safety and wellbeing—and probably her baby’s, if my suspicion was right. Now that she has already been coerced to backtrack and undermine her own accusations (it is simply ridiculous that a veteran tennis professional would need the Chinese Tennis Association’s assistance in translating an email that cannot be simpler to the WTA CEO) for the “sake” of China’s political stability, I doubt much could be done to address the issue on the personal level in the short term. She did write “as if an egg hitting a stone and as if a moth flying towards the flame” in her post, but for a person who cannot simply cut ties with the motherland or bear to sacrifice her family, it is easier said than done—a  reluctant quid pro quo might just have to be the unfortunate reality (sidebar once again: the couple of former soccer star Hao Haidong and former badminton world champion Ye Zhaoying had to flee the country to be outspoken against the Communist government). 

That said, maybe—just maybe—when they convene in Beijing in February, IOC members could make some sort of statement or arrangement in support of Peng, their fellow Olympian. Or maybe—just maybe—some athletes could make public their support Peng while marching at the Opening Ceremony and bring it to some Chinese viewers’ attention—after all, supporting Peng is by no means a political statement that has zero risk of inviting repercussion from the IOC even if it would certainly irk Beijing. I fervently hope that Peng will speak the truths of her own volition one day: it is plainly painful, heartbreaking, and outrageous to see women’s rights and dignity, already doubted, belittled, vilified, and denied, totally evaporate when perceived to be dangerous for the façade of an authoritarian regime’s stability. 

Challenges abound on the road ahead, but a tennis fan can dream. 

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