Peng ShuaiIt must be great being China; I mean, you can literally get away with anything and nobody’s going to stop you. Perhaps only Vladimir Putin alone also knows how good that feels. Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough – only, no one will and no one does. You create a deadly virus, you somehow let it slip out of the lab and spread across the globe, and then – as a totalitarian state – you devise an inhumane method of placing your citizens under constant surveillance and/or house-arrest and every free, democratic nation around the world follows your lead. What’s not to like? And now China has flexed its muscles even further on the international stage by removing one of its leading sportswomen from public view, just like that – because it can. Why, all she did was make online sexual assault allegations against a former vice-premier.

35-year-old Peng Shuai, one-time women’s doubles world number one and a Wimbledon winner in that category alongside Hsieh Su-wei in 2013, has effectively vanished following the allegations made on the Weibo social media site. They were made against Zhang Gaoli, alleging the senior CCP official tried to force her into having sex after playing tennis at his home. The allegations, which have subsequently been removed from the site, appeared on 2 November; and Shuai hasn’t been seen since – unless one believes the email (credited to her) that was released last week in which ‘she’ retracts the allegations and claims she’s not missing but is merely keeping out of the public eye by relaxing at home, a claim supported by some unconvincing photos that accompanied the missive. A few days later, Chinese state media released a clip apparently featuring the reclusive star having an evening out at a restaurant, which is certainly a new twist on the traditional hostage video.

So, the official line from the CCP is that there is no story, Peng Shuai is not missing, and serious allegations against one of the party’s highest-ranking figures are not worthy of comment. Across-the-board denial has been the response whenever questions have been asked by outsiders, with a blanket ban in effect on Chinese media outlets. ‘I have not heard of the issue you raised,’ said China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin. ‘This is not a diplomatic question.’ His response has been deleted from the Chinese Government’s official website, so it therefore never happened. A similar bout of feigned ignorance afflicted the pages of the CCP’s Global Times. ‘As a person who is familiar with the Chinese system,’ wrote editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, ‘I don’t believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for the thing people talked about.’ ‘The thing people talked about’ – interesting wording; no surprise about the wording, however, when one considers this story doesn’t exist in the Chinese media landscape.

The Women’s Tennis Association is not exactly satisfied with these excuses for explanations, threatening to withdraw from the Chinese tournaments that constitute a money-spinning section of next season’s tour unless Shuai resurfaces soon; the WTA’s male equivalent – along with some of its most notable members – has also voiced concerns as to her whereabouts after airing the allegations. Both the UN and the White House have issued statements condemning the situation, whilst over here there have been calls for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics – probably unlikely, but China does like to contradict the critical narrative via grand gestures that paint it in a positive light, like its spectacular staging of the Olympic Games in Beijing back in 2008. Any such boycott could potentially damage the global brand, though it’ll most likely end up little more than a dent on account of the few who I imagine will follow through on their threat.

After all, how many of the virtuous footballers taking the knee and wrapping themselves around the rainbow flag will extend their stunning and brave solidarity with the oppressed people of the planet into the next World Cup, where they’ll be guaranteed a global platform? In case you’ve forgotten, FIFA received enough weighty brown packages under the table during the bidding process to award the competition to that renowned haven for LGBTXYZ (and women’s) rights, Qatar – y’know the Middle Eastern kingdom whereby effective slave labour has been busily building the required stadia whilst the authorities have been sweeping a fair few insignificant workforce fatalities under the carpet. Hmm, difficult dilemma facing yer average international footballer, that one.

Maybe it’s just easier indulging in your vacuous gesture before kick-off at every game in the Premier League rather than risking losing your place in the national side should you question the narrative. Moreover, why take the chance of your face being removed from all the products you sponsor when they’re being sold in some of the world’s most profitable marketplaces – ones that unfortunately happen to be the kind of places that have no respect whatsoever for the personal freedoms you’re so keen to promote unless doing so threatens your own luxury livelihood? At least you’re being seen doing the accepted ‘right thing’ week in-week out and that’s enough – even if it makes not the slightest bit of difference to a serf baking beneath the Qatari sun as he installs another executive box for FIFA officials.

Sport being such a huge generator of huge wealth for its highest-paid practitioners is always the sting in the tail of a sportsman or woman acquiring a conscience, where blind eyes are turned to genuine suffering if it jeopardises the career to raise the subject. Some do have the balls to go out on a limb and make a stance, but most prefer to merely make the token gestures and not offend the goose laying their golden eggs. On a positive note in this particular case, some of the leading names in tennis have at least nailed their colours to the mast where Peng Shuai is concerned – everyone from Billie Jean King to Novak Djokovic; but we shall have to wait and see what happens next if she fails to appear in public again. Not that Shuai is the first notable athlete to disappear from view, mind.

Ugandan hurdler John Akii-Bua won his country’s first ever gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics, yet was discovered in a Kenyan refugee camp eight years later; despite receiving a hero’s welcome following his Olympic success, the collapse of Idi Amin’s regime in 1979 forced him to flee Uganda, and it took the intervention of his shoe manufacturer Puma to intervene upon his discovery before he was released to work for the firm in Germany. Ironically, considering his nation was ruled by such a bonkers and dangerous despot at the time of his triumph, Akii-Bua received the patronage of Amin and his disappearance, for once, wasn’t down to Mr President. If only the same could be said for Peng Shuai.

An interesting non-critical voice has come from the International Olympic Committee, though perhaps it’s no great surprise considering it could give FIFA a run for its money in the honesty stakes. An IOC statement said they had ‘seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe.’ There you go. But Peng Shuai remains out of sight for the moment and the serious sexual assault allegations have yet to be investigated. It’ll be interesting to see how far China tries to take this or if it has actually underestimated the international response it has provoked and the whole business has been a step too far for a country that has grown used to doing whatever the hell it wants without having to face any real consequences.

© The Editor