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Where is Peng Shuai? What the disappearance of a Chinese tennis star tells us about the Streisand effect and Chinese soft power.

Every once and a while a story comes along that sticks and bounces around in my head for days at a time like a coked-out wasp trapped in a ceiling light. Every time I think I get the jist, a new angle pops into view, and I go off on a new tangent for like ten more tabs. I’ve had to rewrite this article three times because I simply couldn’t allow these brain blasts to go unheard by the clamouring masses. To that end, here’s a winding story about a Chinese tennis champ, the #MeToo movement, Barbra Streisand, the Olympics, and Chinese internet censors trolling France.


Boy, that list is more diverse than an episode of Community. I sure can’t wait to see how everything ties together. Well, you might have guessed from the news, if you’re into that kind of thing, that the tennis player in question is called Peng Shuai. She’s 35 years old and has been a  fixture of the women’s doubles circuit throughout her career, peaking at the top ranked spot in the category in 2014. But it’s not 2014 anymore, so why the fuck would she be in this article, let alone a viral hashtag?


Probably because Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, and Novak Djokovic all tweeted about it. If you ever get three members of the modern tennis pantheon talking about you at once, something either rarely good or really bad has happened to you. And since my name isn’t John Krasinski, I think you can guess which one it was this time. 


They were tweeting under the hashtag #whereispengshuai, because at that point, Peng hadn’t appeared in public for around two weeks. Sounds ominous right on its face, but it gets worse. As it turns out, about two weeks before her absence became conspicuous, the athlete had published a 1600 word post from her verified account on the Chinese social media app Weibo. A little while later, the post was gone — as was any mention of Peng on the Chinese equivalent of Google. The Guardian reported that censors had at one point even blocked the whole word ‘tennis.’


Contained in what seems like Peng’s version of a notes app manifesto were detailed allegations that a very senior member of the ruling Communist Party — former vice premier Zhang Gaoli — had sexually assaulted her in his home and coerced her into sex. This story sound familiar? It should. It sounds very much like a lot of stories that end with #MeToo. 

China's #MeToo is #RiceBunny

In some ways, the post was/is a limit test for the #MeToo movement in China, which is often called #RiceBunny, after the mandarin words ‘mi tu,’ which is incredible (and tactical, allowing users to avoid censorship through emojis.) The movement got a later jump in China, what with all the extra landmines that come with heightened state surveillance and censorship, but has been picking up steam since a high-profile 2018 accusation of a state television anchor, and an August arrest of one of China’s biggest pop stars, Kris Wu. 


No #RiceBunny allegations had been laid against quite as powerful a man as Zhang, however, which maybe helps to explain the over-dramatic reaction to Peng’s post (you don’t need to block a whole sport just cause you’re scared of one of its players guys, chill.) But that reaction is also very likely the only reason we’ve been hearing about this case in the first place. It’s not an uncommon thing for a hasty attempt to suppress information like this to draw much more attention than the information itself would have garnered. And this is where I get to talk about Barbra Streisand. 


See, in 2003, Barbra Streisand sued a photographer named Kenneth Adelman for publishing a photo he had taken of the singer’s house while completing a survey of coastal erosion in California. Before the lawsuit, so the story goes, the photo had been downloaded a total of six times (two of which were by Streisand’s attorneys.) After the lawsuit was filed and made public, the photo was downloaded around 420,000 times. This behaviour, the drive to seek out and cherish information that we know is being shaded from us, is a psychological effect called a reactance. And when the internet facilitates a whole bunch of reactances at once and about the same thing, it’s called the Streisand effect. I imagine it would be tough to have a whole new cultural phenomenon named after you while you’re still alive when the reason it’s named after you is that you embarrassed yourself in front of the whole world in 2003. 

Barbra Streisand's house. She's punching the air rn.

Anyway, the Streisand effect kicked into high gear once everyone took note of Peng’s vanishing act, and the Women’s Tennis Association got involved, demanding proof of their athlete’s well-being and a full investigation into her allegations. The WTA then received a creepy email that read: “Hello everyone, this is Peng Shuai. Regarding the recent news released on the official website of the WTA [...] The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true. I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.” You know in Payday 2 when you kill a guard and then you can use their radio to tell the other guards everything is fine? This email is giving Payday 2 walky-talky mechanics.


The tone of this email is difficult to reconcile with Peng’s Weibo post. In it, she wrote “like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you.” That doesn’t sound like the same person who later tried to deny the veracity of her own sexual abuse allegations. Or like the same woman who was described to sports reporters during her come-up as ‘promising, but with a propensity to challenge Chinese state authority over her career.’


In response to that email and other unsatisfying assurances and denials from Chinese officials, the WTA took the extraordinary step last week of pulling its operations out of China completely, even though it stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars. This is in stark contrast to many other sporting organizations, notably the Houston Rockets and the NBA, the Arsenal soccer team, Activision Blizzard (which, in fairness, is owned in part by Chinese state media giant Tencent), and most critically right now, the International Olympic Committee. 

Full email from "Peng Shuai" to the Women's Tennis Association

As tensions were rising around Peng’s case, she held a video call with the head of the IOC, Thomas Bach. After the meeting, Bach came out to say that everything seemed perfectly fine despite the mountain of evidence and motives for the contrary. Now, I can’t help but notice the timing of Bach’s statement, given the controversial 2022 Beijing Olympics are only weeks away. The IOC (and international sports in general) has a history of overlooking its host countries’ sketchier policies with regard to human rights including but not limited to those of Putin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. 


Other videos in which Peng has surfaced since her disappearance have distinctly staged/hostage-tape feels to them, and in one video, speakers had trouble agreeing on the date of recording. Journalists who have spoken to some of Peng’s friends and family say that her behaviour and diction in these films is alien to them.


Now, at this point, the Chinese propaganda machine has changed tack, switching from cover-up mode to full denial and redirection. Chinese state media figures have spoken out about Western actors’ characterization of the events surrounding Peng’s disappearance while being careful to talk around the initial allegations, a familiar playbook. And when the French embassy in China posted on Weibo about Peng’s case, censors did not remove the post, but rather promoted comments that said something like mind your own business, or that engaged in whataboutism, bringing up the French Catholic church’s systemic sexual abuse problem. Honestly a much more effective tactic and also just a solid roast.


There are a lot of really important takeaways from this story. On the one hand it is genuinely nice to see the Chinese government's ginormous censorship apparatus fall victim to one of the greatest PR sins of the internet age, but it also seems like the CCP’s patented ‘highlight Western hypocrisy and pretend our own doesn’t exist while dangling bajillions of dollars over businesses’ heads’ is working just fine. And, on top of that, I’m not sure how effective the Streisand effect is on the other side of the Great Firewall. Everyone roasted Lebron when he criticised then Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey for tweeting in support of Hong Kong protestors in 2018 (another example of the Streisand effect — awareness of the Hong Kong protests certainly spiked), but I doubt very many Chinese people heard about those roasts. 


And while the WTA had much to lose by not following through on its threat to pull out of China — it represents women and can’t afford to lose their trust — it’s unlikely that the NBA or the IOC or any other sporting company for that matter will face enough external pressure to cause them to sprout some kind of a spine when facing down China. 


As for the #RiceBunny movement, all we can do is hope that the Peng Shuai case represents a one-off protection deal for a top-echelon Party member and not a broader shift in policy toward the stamping out of an intensely important move toward social progress. It will be interesting to see if China can get the WTA to return after this, and I’m excited by the balls on this org, if only because I’ve been following Chinese soft power for a while now, and I’ve never seen anyone walk the walk like this. But for the most part, it can still do whatever it wants. When it comes to human rights disputes like this, it’s still advantage PRC. That’s a tennis pun.

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