IOC video call with Peng Shuai backfires amid growing calls for boycott

Rights activists and a leading sports body hit out at the International Olympics Committee for 'collaboration.'
By Yitong Wu, Fong Tak Ho and Chingman
2021.11.23
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IOC video call with Peng Shuai backfires amid growing calls for boycott Chinese women's tennis star Peng Shuai speaks with International Oympics Committee president Thomas Bach in a video call, Nov. 21, 2021.
IOC Pictures

The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) video call with tennis star Peng Shuai, who is believed to be under some form of coercive detention following her #MeToo revelations against a former vice premier, has sparked an international outcry, along with growing calls for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the IOC, whose president Thomas Bach tried to play down concerns for Peng's safety following the call with Peng and a Chinese sports official, of "active collaboration" with Beijing.

"The IOC has vaulted itself from silence about Beijing’s abysmal human rights record to active collaboration with Chinese authorities in undermining freedom of speech and disregarding alleged sexual assault," senior HRW China researcher Yaqiu Wang said in a statement on the group's website.

"The IOC appears to prize its relationship with a major human rights violator over the rights and safety of Olympic athletes," Wang said.

On China's tightly controlled internet, keyword searches for "tennis" or Peng's surname remain blocked, amid ongoing censorship of any discussion of Peng's status or her allegations against former vice premier Zhang Gaoli, it said.

Peng, 35, went missing after making a social media post on Nov. 2 in which she said Zhang, who is 40 years her senior, had sexually assaulted her and forced her into an affair.

While an email claiming to be from Peng and sent to the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) withdrew the allegations, the group said it wasn't reassured, and is considering ending its activities in China unless the authorities allow Peng to travel and speak freely, and investigate the allegations against Zhang.

"The authorities do not appear to have initiated an investigation into Peng’s complaint against Zhang," HRW said, adding that the IOC has made no comment on the allegations, nor offered her any support.

"The Chinese government forcibly disappears individuals whose views or conduct it sees as problematic, employs extralegal forms of detention and torture, and publishes forced confessions to make dubious cases appear legitimate," it said.

"By cooperating with Chinese authorities in this video call, the IOC failed to adhere to its own human rights commitments and to protect the free expression rights of Olympic athletes," HRW said.

"The IOC’s conduct also undermined the efforts by the WTA and other international sports organizations and individuals to secure Peng’s safety and freedom, and hold the Chinese government to account for human rights violations," the group said, calling for a retraction of the IOC's statements about Peng's safety.

Suspicious videos

France-based commentator Wang Longmeng agreed.

"The Chinese government has gone to a lot of effort to release these videos [purportedly] showing that Peng Shuai is free, but these videos are suspicious," Wang said. "While it is Peng Shuai on camera, I think the government is controlling things from behind the camera."

"How can the IOC be so naive as to believe them and pass on their claim that Peng Shuai is safe?" he said. "We can only judge whether Peng Shuai is free by whether or not she and her family are allowed to travel overseas freely."

"Bach should invite Peng, a three-time Olympian, to Switzerland for dinner, and without the Chinese [sports] official Li Lingwei [from the video call] tagging along," Wang Longmeng said.

Wang Longmeng said the IOC is playing along with Chinese leader Xi Jinping's propaganda campaign to paint China as an international power as he prepares to take a third term in office next year.

"The Winter Olympics is a major international event happening just before Xi seeks re-election [by party leaders]," he said. "The IOC is helping to prepare the ground for Beijing ... and have turned into a commercial organization that has abandoned the spirit and the values of the Olympics."

"In contrast to the WTA, they are bowing down to Beijing's money and power."

Concerns over boycott

Dilxat Raxit, spokesperson for the World Uyghur Conference on China, said Beijing is likely worried that the international community will boycott the event in protest at the CCP's human rights record, particularly the mass incarceration and widespread persecution of Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang.

"The Peng Shuai incident has sparked international calls for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, and so the Chinese government has launched a major foreign propaganda offensive to save the event," he said.

"The IOC, which has long been the willing servant of the Chinese government, is now preparing the ground for that offensive," he said, adding that the IOC has continued to turn a blind eye to mass human rights violations against Uyghurs, saying politics should be kept out of sporting events.

"The IOC is already an accomplice to ... the Chinese government's genocide," he said.

Outspoken NBA star Enes Kanter called on Twitter for the Olympics to be moved.

"Move the Olympics for Peng Shuai’s Sake!!!," Kanter tweeted. "It's time for us to WAKE UP and SPEAK UP!!"

"All the gold medals in the WORLD aren’t worth selling your morals, values and your principles," he wrote.

In an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal, Kanter said it was time that international companies and organizations stopped steering away from "sensitive topics" likely to anger Beijing, including Tibetan independence, the Uyghur genocide, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, and Taiwan’s self-rule.

"We need to realize that the authoritarian Chinese government isn’t our friend," Kanter wrote. "The Communist Party is a brutal dictatorship that has weaponized economic power to achieve ideological and political compliance."

"Western athletes can and should use our global platforms to lend a voice to those being silenced ... Let's ... keep demanding answers until we know for sure [Peng] is safe."

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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