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Peng Shuai, China Could Be Focus of Olympics Chief’s News Conference


sabrina tavernise

From The New York Times, I’m Sabrina Tavernise. This is The Daily.

China’s decision to censor a star athlete has confronted the sports industry with a dilemma. Speak out on her behalf or protect their financial interests in China. Today: I spoke to my colleague, Matt Futterman, about the unexpected way that dilemma is playing out.

It’s Friday, December 10.

Matt, I keep seeing headlines involving China and a woman tennis player. And I’m not quite sure what to make of them. And as a longtime sportswriter for The Times who’s covering this story, help me understand it. Tell me, where does it start?

matthew futterman

So this story starts on November 2nd when Peng Shuai, who has long been one of China’s most popular tennis players, certainly, and probably even one of its most popular athletes — a three-time Olympian, Grand Slam doubles champion — she goes on one of China’s largest social media sites, Weibo, and she posts a lengthy blog post, I guess you would call it, detailing her relationship, which culminated in a sexual assault. And she states in this post, “Even if it’s just me, like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to a flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you.” And “you” happens to be a gentleman named Zhang Gaoli, who was one of the members of China’s seven-member ruling committee along with Xi Jinping. And this is the sort of accusation that does not get made against powerful people in China.

sabrina tavernise

Wow. So here’s this woman tennis player who’s taking on a really prominent and powerful Chinese leader. And just listening to her words and the image it makes — “crack like an egg hitting a rock.” I mean, it’s like she knows, and she’s saying she knows this is an incredibly risky move.

matthew futterman

Yes, she says that, and she says a lot of other things that are really disturbing. She talks about not feeling like she’s worth living essentially, but also not having the courage to die. Talking about sort of her mind being worthless at this point, a state of confusion. It’s a real sort of cry for help in a lot of ways.

And it’s just incredibly upsetting and disturbing for people to read, and I’m sure very disturbing for her to reveal. And it takes off sort of immediately. She has over 500,000 followers on Weibo. And within minutes, the post is taken down.

sabrina tavernise

Oh, wow.

matthew futterman

Clearly, the people who monitor China’s social media, which is very closely monitored, as we know, this sets off alarm bells. But not before it’s been copied and put onto Twitter and Instagram and other social media platforms that aren’t available in China. So it sort of very quickly circles across the world. And while it’s catching fire, she is immediately basically scrubbed from the internet in China.

sabrina tavernise

How so? What happens?

matthew futterman

Well, you can’t search her name anymore, and Chinese officials just did everything they possibly could to stop any discussion of this. There are people who report that they mention her in private chat groups. And all of a sudden, their chat group gets zapped out.

sabrina tavernise

Wow.

matthew futterman

So the extent to which China goes to try and make this disappear is really extraordinary.

sabrina tavernise

I mean, China really wants this to go away.

matthew futterman

It would seem so. It would seem so. And we see in the coming days they also want her to go away.

sabrina tavernise

What do you mean?

matthew futterman

Well, for the next couple of weeks, nobody sees her, nobody can get in touch with her. She has had a fairly large social media presence in China. She’s a big star. She’s generally seen out and about, but there’s just no reported sightings of her. And this happens in China, people do disappear when they run afoul of the government and top government officials, but in the case of Peng Shuai, it’s a little different because she has some pretty powerful supporters in the west.

sabrina tavernise

Before we get to that, who is Peng Shuai? What do we need to know about her?

matthew futterman

She’s born in 1986 in Hunan province. Begins to play tennis as a young girl, and she shows some promise. And what I think is important about her story is that she is born sort of right in the sweet spot of where China is in terms of trying to establish itself in mainstream sports.

There are certain sports that China has been very good at for a very long time, most notably table tennis. But in the 1990s, China sort of decides that it wants to use sports to establish itself as a really sort of well-rounded world power. And if you have designs on being an international athlete and you are born in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, you hit it just right in China.

Their big goal is that they want to host the Olympic games. And China pretty much steps on the gas in terms of developing athletes, sending kids to sports schools. And people like Peng Shuai, who was a really good tennis player as a child, she is sent off to the national tennis development program, and that’s really where her career as a tennis player begins to take off.

She starts winning some tournaments and winning some matches in the early 2000s and begins to establish herself in the later 2000s as someone who can play with the best players in the world. And that really climaxes in 2013.

archived recording

Shuai, who was dumped out of the early stages of the ladies singles, appears to be thriving on the doubles circuit. Her confidence at the net, an instrumental part of her game, was reaping the rewards for her and her partner.

matthew futterman

When playing with her Taiwanese doubles partner, Hsieh Su-Wei.

archived recording

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

matthew futterman

She wins the Wimbledon doubles championship. The next year she wins the French Open doubles championship. And she actually even makes the U.S. Open singles semifinals that year as well.

archived recording

Match point here. Peng finishes this match with 24 winners and only 7 unforced errors. A perfect debut, and she is in the U.S. Open semifinals for the first time in her career.

matthew futterman

And she is immediately launched into a kind of level of superstardom in China. They don’t have Grand Slam champions, for the most part. So she is seen as a really valuable asset for China in terms of making its mark as just a fully modern country that can compete on the world stage in every facet of society.

sabrina tavernise

So it’s really interesting, Matt. I mean, it sounds like from everything you’re saying she just has this really outsized role as one of the players who helped popularize tennis in China. In some ways, she kind of helped bring tennis to China.

matthew futterman

I think that’s absolutely right.

sabrina tavernise

So Peng Shuai makes this post about this high-ranking official, this sexual assault she’s accusing him of, and then she disappears. So what happens next?

matthew futterman

Well, people have noticed, and they’re trying to get in touch with her. Most importantly, the Women’s Tennis Association, which is the professional women’s tour, which has every interest in trying to protect one of its players, and tries to start reaching out to her in every possible way that they can through Chinese tennis officials. People have her contact information. And they can’t. They have no idea where she is, if she is safe, even if she’s alive or dead.

And so on November 14, Steve Simon, the head of the W.T.A., makes the decision in consultation with the players and the other officials who are on his board of directors that he’s going to go public with this. And he sets up a number of interviews in which he says this is unacceptable. We’re really concerned about Peng Shuai’s safety.

And in addition to wanting to speak with her, we want China to listen to these allegations and fully investigate them in a very public and transparent way. And the next question, of course, is well, what if they don’t? And that’s when Steve Simon says, well, if they don’t, we’re going to have to consider not doing business in China anymore.

sabrina tavernise

Oh, wow. And so how does China respond to that?

matthew futterman

Not well. China comes back and saying that you shouldn’t be mixing sports and politics like this. But in terms of how they really react to it, they don’t make a move at first in terms of producing Peng Shuai. They don’t say, OK, we’ll set up a call with you. What they do instead is they keep things pretty quiet for a couple more days.

But what happens after Steve Simon goes public with this is the hashtag on Twitter that has been sort of bubbling out there — where is Peng Shuai? With a picture of her — that begins to take off in the same way that her initial post begins to take off.

archived recording

This morning, tennis’s top stars demanding answers as to the whereabouts of 35-year-old Chinese tennis star Pung Shuai.

matthew futterman

And you have incredibly prominent tennis players and even some people outside of tennis who start posting that on Twitter in solidarity.

archived recording

Last week, Roger Federer saying that the tennis world is united around her.

matthew futterman

These are people like Serena Williams, Billie Jean King, who is the founder of the Women’s Tennis Tour. Naomi Osaka.

archived recording

I’m in shock of the current situation. And I’m sending love and light her way. #WhereIsPengShuai?

matthew futterman

And even someone as prominent as Gerard Piqué, who is one of the most popular soccer players in the world who has something like 20 million followers on social media.

sabrina tavernise

Wow.

matthew futterman

And he posted. So this becomes a real thing.

And all of a sudden, not only are all of these athletes putting the spotlight on China, but they’re also beginning to put pressure on the International Olympic Committee for them to do something about this, because Beijing is set to host the Winter Olympics beginning in February. And in response to that, China starts scrambling.

The first thing they do is they post an email on western social media. It’s a very awkward email that begins, “This is Peng Shuai.” And it’s an immediate tip-off that this actually isn’t Peng Shuai.

And in several sentences, she basically recants everything she says and tells everybody she’s safe and fine and pay no attention to what I said earlier this month. And Steve Simon says, actually, this doesn’t make me feel better about what’s been happening with Peng Shuai. It actually makes me feel more concerned because it’s so clear that she hasn’t written it.

sabrina tavernise

Right.

matthew futterman

The next thing they do is they have their correspondence in the state-run media get into the picture. And one journalist posts pictures of Peng Shuai in a bedroom surrounded by stuffed animals, smiling. It’s not clear exactly when these pictures had been taken. He claims to have been taken that day. And once again, nobody really believes that.

archived recording

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

matthew futterman

And then, when those pictures don’t make anybody feel better —

archived recording

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

matthew futterman

— another Chinese news figure releases a video of Peng Shuai in a Beijing restaurant with a coach talking about tennis in China. And she’s mostly listening, and this guy is talking to her and clearly trying to establish the date.

archived recording

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

matthew futterman

Saying things like, yesterday was November 19, right? Tomorrow is November 20, right? And I think China is trying to do what it always tries to do, which is control this story and trying to put out the fire, but they also realize it’s not working. And that’s when the International Olympic Committee gets involved.

sabrina tavernise

So tell me about that.

matthew futterman

So on Sunday, November 21, the International Olympic Committee releases pictures of Peng Shuai in a video call with the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach. And they say that they’ve held a 30 minute conversation with her. She said that she’s safe and fine and in Beijing and resting and would like some privacy.

They don’t release a transcript of the call. They don’t explain many details of the call, but they say that they made plans to have dinner in January when Thomas Bach arrives in Beijing for the Winter Games, but there’s some interesting details about that call which are really important. The first is that Peng Shuai is not alone on this phone call. She has it with an I.O.C. athletes representative, but she also has it with a Chinese representative to the International Olympic Committee who was a part of the Chinese Tennis Federation.

And there’s another person on the phone call who was described to me as a friend to help her with her English. And that raises some alarm bells because Peng Shuai speaks perfectly fine English, according to everyone who I’ve talked to who have spoken with her. So she’s clearly not speaking independently and freely. And there’s also no mention in the statement that there’s any discussion of the sexual assault, of the allegations, of anything that’s really happened to her in terms of an investigation of those things.

And that prompts Steve Simon to say once more, while I’m perfectly happy to see that she’s alive and seemingly safe, I’m not satisfied. We haven’t been able to speak with her independently, and there’s been no movement on an investigation into this matter. And so he decides along with the people on his board, who include several top players, that enough is enough.

archived recording

And now a very big update on a very important story we have been following.

matthew futterman

And what he announces he’s doing is —

archived recording

The Women’s Tennis Association announcing it is immediately suspending all of its tournaments in China and Hong Kong.

matthew futterman

He’s going to suspend all of the W.T.A.‘s business in China, which essentially means we’re not going to have tournaments there until we see some real meaningful movement on this.

archived recording

Now, the organization’s chief of the W.T.A. says in a statement, quote, “If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug — ”

matthew futterman

We are pulling out of China, the world’s largest country.

archived recording

“And the basis on which the W.T.A. was founded. Equality for women would suffer an immense setback.”

matthew futterman

A place that everyone has agreed for decades that every sport needs to be doing business with and have a presence in.

archived recording

“I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”

matthew futterman

But the WTA is leaving, and that just never happens in sports.

sabrina tavernise

We’ll be right back.

Matt, so the W.T.A. suspends all tournaments in China. And you said that was extremely unusual in sports.

matthew futterman

Never happens.

sabrina tavernise

Why not?

matthew futterman

Well, I think you just have to look at the N.B.A. to understand what happens when you mess with China. Two years ago, 2019, a Houston Rockets executive sends out this tweet —

archived recording

“Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”

matthew futterman

— in support of the protesters in Hong Kong.

archived recording

Now, the tweet was quickly deleted, but the damage, it was already done.

matthew futterman

And all of a sudden, it becomes an absolute firestorm. China is furious. They stop selling Houston Rockets gear on their websites. They take N.B.A. games off Chinese television.

archived recording

Those games have been canceled.

matthew futterman

All these things suddenly happen.

archived recording

The N.B.A. is now scrambling to contain the fallout —

matthew futterman

You have the N.B.A. commissioner going on bended-knee and at first apologizing.

archived recording

Mr. Morey’s views have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.

matthew futterman

But then after he gets criticized, having to say, oh, actually, our executives and players do have free speech.

archived recording

We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression.

matthew futterman

So it’s just this sort of an incredible, very volatile situation where, if you sort of mess with China, there’s black and white with the Chinese. You’re either in or you’re out. And if you cross the line with them, they’re going to come after you. And the N.B.A. estimates it cost them about $300 million just because that one tweet. And what unfolded after that.

sabrina tavernise

Wow. That’s a very steep cost.

matthew futterman

Yes, $300 million is a lot of money, even for the N.B.A., which is a $10 billion organization populated by some of the richest people in the world.

sabrina tavernise

Are there other examples?

matthew futterman

Yeah, I think the most current example is the I.O.C., which has had some behavior in this situation, which has really surprised a lot of people. Forget about criticizing China. They have essentially been propping up the Chinese government by putting out these videos and these statements.

And I think there’s a big question as to why they’re doing this. And the reason is the Olympics are coming to Beijing in less than two months. And their mission is to bring the biggest countries in the world, really, all countries, big and smile, together. It’s something of a peace mission, but it’s also sort of the basis of their existence. That’s the product that they’re selling.

And if they can’t sell that product, if they can’t bring all these countries in the world together to compete against each other and create this TV show, which engrosses so many millions of people every two years, there are huge financial stakes to that. And it really sort of poses an existential threat to the Olympics if big countries decide that they don’t want to go. And the biggest of all is China.

sabrina tavernise

So Matt, money is this constant theme with companies in China. And I guess what I’m wondering is, doesn’t the W.T.A. also have business interests in China? I mean, they suspended tournaments, so presumably this affects them as well, right?

matthew futterman

It absolutely affects them. The W.T.A. actually has a huge business interest in China. We’re talking about a country that is the host in nine tournaments, including that season ending championship. And over the course of the next decade, it’s estimated that you’re looking at a loss of several hundred million dollars in China in terms of growth and in terms of investment that they have promised to make. So this would be a really costly decision.

sabrina tavernise

So given that pretty meaningful financial stake, why is the W.T.A. taking such a hard stance here then? I mean, what’s driving them to go against China’s leadership on this issue with Peng?

matthew futterman

Well, there’s a few reasons for that. I mean, I think the first is that the W.T.A. does believe it’s going to have other opportunities. For example, most recently, the tour finals. They could not be held in China because of Covid.

They moved them to Guadalajara. It was a perfectly excellent tournament. So the money is not going to go to zero. It might not be as much as they can get in China, but they will have other opportunities, and they believe in themselves. And so I think that’s one reason at a very sort of basic dollars and cents level.

Another reason is that this organization, the W.T.A., was founded in the 1970s at a time when women’s sports really didn’t exist. And it was founded on the sort of basis of women really believing in themselves. It was founded by Billie Jean King who was one of the great tennis players of her era and also just a huge activist for women’s rights. And the idea of this tour was that women deserved to be paid attention to and listened to, just like anyone else. And that brings us to Peng Shuai, who is not only not being listened to, but she’s being silenced.

sabrina tavernise

So this situation that she’s in, her effective disappearance, is really kind of going against the entire mission of the W.T.A.

matthew futterman

Yeah, this is the principle upon which this tour was founded, and it’s just sort of sacrosanct with these people that you stand up for your own, and you certainly stand up for one of your own when they put these incredibly serious allegations out there. But at this point, it doesn’t seem like any other sport is doing much more than voicing concern for Peng Shuai. Not even men’s tennis.

No one else is sort of joining the W.T.A. and saying that they’re going to follow the same lead and to spend their own events in China unless there’s a full investigation and she’s able to speak freely. That’s not happening. It’s sort of being seen as either a tennis problem or a female problem rather than a human problem.

Peng Shuai along with Li Na was a woman who really brought tennis into the limelight in China. And it really worked in the way China wanted it to. It helped legitimize the country as a truly modern society.

But beyond that, she also served as a real inspiration to women and girls that they could do anything and be anything, because that’s what happens when you become a champion in sports. And now, through no fault of her own, she’s been silenced by the Chinese government. She’s kind of disappeared. And so much of what she has dedicated her life to, it’s lost.

sabrina tavernise

Matt, thank you.

matthew futterman

Thanks very much.

sabrina tavernise

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today. Federal health regulators approved booster shots of the Pfizer BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for 16 and 17-year-olds, clearing the way for several million teenagers to receive an additional shot. Adults have been eligible for boosters since November 19. And about 50 million people, that’s 1/4 of all vaccinated adults, have gotten one.

Early tests suggests that the fast-spreading variant, Omicron, dulls the power of two doses, and regulators say the booster would offer additional protection. And a Starbucks store in Buffalo voted to form a union, making it the only one of nearly 9,000 company-owned stores in the U.S. to be unionized. Workers said they heard from other Starbucks employees across the country during the campaign, saying they were interested in unionizing too. The number of workers was small, but the effort was significant for the potential challenge it presents to the giant coffee retailer, which has opposed unionization.

Today’s episode was produced by Robert Jimison, Mooj Zadie, Rachel Quester, Alex Young and Luke Vander Ploeg. It was edited by Lisa Chow and Patricia Willens and engineered by Chris Wood, with original music by Marion Lozano, Corey Schreppel, Brad Fisher and Dan Powell. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

[music]

That’s it for The Daily. I’m Sabrina Tavernise. See you on Monday.


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