As Beijing prepares to host another Olympics in February, doubts remain about the safety of Peng Shuai.
By Yasa Guo
Chinese women's tennis star Peng Shuai is shown in a file photo.
Concerns remain about the safety and liberty of Chinese women's tennis star Peng Shuai, as the country gears up to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.
The Olympics follows a decision late last year by the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), which has repeatedly called for a full investigation of Peng's short-lived allegations of sexual assault at the hands of former vice premier Zhang Gaoli, to suspend all of its tennis tournaments in China.
French tennis player Alize Cornet started the new year by telling journalists she is still worried about Peng, a former world doubles No. 1, and that she wants more clarity.
"I'm still a little bit worried about her," Cornet said after a match against Naomi Osaka, who has also spoken out on Peng's behalf, in Melbourne on Jan. 4.
"I have to say that this situation still makes me feel uncomfortable, and I don't know how she's doing," Cornet said. "I really don't know what to think about it anymore. I don't know where is the truth and where are the lies."
The confusion comes from the cranking up of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s propaganda machine in the immediate aftermath of Peng's now-deleted Nov. 2, 2021 social media post detailing being "forced" into a sexual relationship with Zhang, in one of the highest-profile cases to emerge from China's #MeToo movement.
Peng was soon seen in fresh photos on social media, posing in front of a stash of stuffed animals, and speaking to International Olympics Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach in a video call.
She later "gave an interview" to the pro-CCP, Singapore-based Lianhe Zaobao newspaper. However, a BBC report later revealed that the interviewer wasn't even a journalist at the paper, but was based in Shanghai in a sales role.
Cornet said she was surprised by the strength of international concern on Twitter after she showed her support for Peng using the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
"I'm really happy that all these people followed me and the turn it took was really unexpected, like the reaction of (WTA chief executive) Steve Simon and everything that followed was really, really huge," Cornet said in comments reported by Reuters.
"I'm not sure that it changes something [for Peng]," she added. "It's tough to know what the effect was on her situation. It's not very clear."
Veteran Chinese journalist Wang Jian told RFA that Cornet's fears are likely well-founded.
"All of the information we have had on Peng Shuai since Nov. 2 has been released through official channels linked to the Chinese government, not from Peng posting something on Twitter or Weibo," Wang told RFA in a recent interview.
"We have had [photos and video] from [state broadcaster] CGTN and [CCP-backed] Global Times editor Hu Xijin," he said. "This shows us that it's all part of the public relations operation ... trying to show that Peng Shuai is free and safe."
"But all it does is to prove that Peng is under the control of the Chinese government," he said. "She is not free, and she's probably not safe."
'Very, very damaging'
Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother - The Awakening Chinese Feminist Movement, said Peng's initial accusation against a former member of the Politburo standing committee was "very, very damaging" for the CCP.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Peng Shuai herself, you know, may be detained by security agents," Hong Fincher said. "We may not hear from her for quite a long time."
"What she did was extraordinarily brave ... I'm sure she'll pay a heavy price for that."
She said Peng had become a target for future smear campaigns when she made her post.
"If you're a victim, coming forward with a public accusation particularly against somebody who's very well known and in power, you're going to be blamed as the victim, you're going to be smeared and there is a very heavy price to pay in coming forward," Hong Fincher said.
"It is particularly damaging and particularly risky for a victim to come forward and go public in a country like China, which is the world's largest, most powerful authoritarian regime," she said.
Chinese feminist Lu Pin said it would be naive to imagine that Peng's high profile could protect her.
"The power gap [between Peng and the CCP] is huge," Lu told RFA. "Peng's social and political capital and status are insignificant compared to someone like Zhang Gaoli."
She said it was important to remember that Peng hadn't brought her experiences on herself.
"Peng was hunted and then abused [by this man]," Lu said. "This isn't an extramarital affair.
This isn't a scandal; this isn't about man messing around on the side, or about a woman behaving badly."
"That's not what this is. This is an incident of sexual violence and abuse, and it's about control, and abuse of power," she said.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.