“We must not stay silent” (Serena Williams via Twitter 11/18/21)
By Andréa J. Worden
August 29, 2022
August 30 is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. It also happens to be the second day of the 2022 US Open. Tennis fans and players, along with human rights supporters everywhere, should continue to ask “Where is Peng Shuai?” and call for her freedom. The popular Chinese tennis player, who achieved a career milestone at the US Open in 2014 by reaching the singles semifinals, is a victim of enforced disappearance at the hands of the Chinese party-state. The UN has deemed enforced disappearance to be a “particularly heinous violation of human rights and an international crime.” Enforced disappearance places the victim “outside the protection of the law” and, “[h]aving been removed from the protective precinct of the law and ‘disappeared’ from society, they are in fact deprived of all their rights and are at the mercy of their captors.”
Since Peng Shuai’s initial disappearance in early November 2021 following her public allegations that a high-ranking official, a former vice-premier and member of the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo Standing Committee, had sexually assaulted her, Chinese authorities have kept Peng in a state of enforced disappearance. The rights of Peng that are being violated include the right to recognition as a person before the law (i.e., “the right to have rights”); the right to liberty and security of the person; the right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and the right to an effective remedy, including reparation and compensation. (See the UN Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (1992).) The violation of other fundamental rights, including the deprivation of Peng’s right to freedom of expression, her rights to freedom of movement and association (e.g., the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and her friends and supporters in the global tennis community), is apparent for all to see. Peng has no ability to seek a remedy for her original sexual assault allegations, nor for the violations of her rights related to being forcibly disappeared and placed “outside the protection of the law.” She has no legal counsel and no access to justice. (If a lawyer were suddenly to emerge on the scene, it would only be to play a CCP-directed role in the cover-up, not to actually represent Peng Shuai’s interests.)
Peng Shuai is completely isolated. Every time IOC President Thomas Bach relays something about what Peng (purportedly) said to him or his IOC colleagues, he reminds us that Peng is being deprived of her right to freedom of speech. Why have we not heard from her directly? Why is Bach speaking for her? Peng is indeed at the “mercy of [her] captors,” and has been forced to say and do what her captors have scripted for her, and to smile on command in her “forced reappearances.”
There have been no reported sightings of Peng Shuai since her carefully staged appearance at the Beijing Olympics in February, orchestrated and tightly controlled by the Chinese Olympic Committee (COC) and Thomas Bach. Nor has she spoken publicly since her scripted interview with the French sports media outlet L’Equipe during the Olympics. One of the journalists involved in that interview, Marc Ventouillac, said after it was published that the interview was “part of communication, propaganda, from the Chinese Olympic Committee.” He said they could point to the interview with a “big European newspaper” and say, look, “there is no problem with Peng Shuai.”
There was supposed to have been another “reappearance” of Peng Shuai this summer. Peng had “accepted” Bach’s invitation in February to visit Lausanne during the summer, to continue their discussions about their Olympic experiences (cue eyeroll emoji), tour the Olympic Museum, and maybe watch a tennis tournament, contingent on Covid-19 travel restrictions. In mid-August, Thomas Bach told a journalist that Peng would not be visiting after all. According to Bach, Peng wanted to postpone the visit because “[s]he had to quarantine herself for twenty-one days to be able to meet me at the [Winter Olympic] Games, rather than undergo another similar period she preferred to wait a bit.” This is sheer nonsense: Peng Shuai is isolated and monitored 24/7 and thus effectively in perpetual “quarantine.”
We still have no idea where Peng Shuai is and how she is doing. We do know that she is the victim of numerous human rights violations, starting with her enforced disappearance. No independent, neutral observer (such as a UN human rights expert) will ever have access to Peng to be able to make an assessment of her mental and physical health, her safety, or her ability to exercise her fundamental human rights.
The sudden involvement of the president of the International Tennis Federation (ITF), David Haggerty, who claimed he spoke with Peng more than six weeks ago, is curious and does nothing to allay concerns about Peng. Perhaps the CCP believed it needed a high-profile voice in the tennis world, in advance of the US Open, to convince those who are watching and concerned about Peng that she is safe and that everything is fine. In a late August interview, Haggerty said, “I felt good with my conversation with Peng and… that’s why I continue to stay in touch. It’d be nice to see her face to face and I’m looking forward to that, when I’m able to travel to China for the events, and when she’s able to travel outside of China, as well.” He continued, “We want our sport to be able to develop and grow and China’s a very, very important market.”
A thought experiment: if Peng were actually free to travel on her own and express her true thoughts and views, where might she go instead of Lausanne, and who might she see want to see instead of Bach? What would she say? The Olympic Capital, not coincidentally, happens to be the European base of some of her captors, including Bach, the IOC, and the COC, which opened an office in Lausanne in December 2018.
We’ll never know. But I think she might have wanted to go to New York for the US Open, to meet up with her friends and her staunch supporter Steve Simon, the CEO of the WTA. Maybe she would have participated in a doubles match to help raise funds for Ukraine and she definitely would have watched some great tennis. Perhaps Peng would have sought out Serena to congratulate her on an amazing career and to thank her for her support. On November 18, 2021, Serena tweeted:
“I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent. Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time.” #whereispengshuai