November 22, 2021 9:48 AM
The extraordinary element in the story of Peng Shuai is not the fate of the Chinese champion, but the international reactions.
The tennis player initially suffered the fate that in China it is up to those who break a taboo and who promptly “disappear” into the repressive machine. In the best of cases, these people reappear after a few months, as in the case of Alibaba founder Jack Ma or movie star Fang Bing Bing, accused of tax fraud and released only after paying a large sum and thanking Xi Jinping. .
Peng Shuai had accused Zhang Gaoli, former deputy premier but above all a member of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party Political Bureau, of rape during Xi Jinping’s first term. What annoyed in China was the denunciation, not the rape. The seven members of the Committee, all men, are in fact considered untouchable. They may fall as a result of a clan fight, but certainly not due to pressure from a tennis player.
The repressive machine has imposed the usual punishment: Peng Shuai has disappeared, traces of the complaint have disappeared from the internet and his portrait has been deleted from the gallery of Chinese champions. But the regime did not foresee the international reaction.
The Party, in fact, had not taken into account the fact that the crime reported by Peng Shuai is part of the global #MeToo movement. Also, where no one can identify with a star accused of tax fraud or an unwelcome billionaire, everyone can sympathize with a sexually abused sportswoman.
Taken by surprise, China found itself more sensitive to this campaign than it could have anticipated
The second element underestimated by Beijing is the unprecedented solidarity of sportsmen from all over the world, from Serena Williams to Naomi Osaka, as well as the reaction of the front pages of sports newspapers such as the Équipe in France and above all that of the World Women’s Tennis Association. (Wta), which has accepted the risk of being excluded from the lucrative Chinese market.
China was taken by surprise and woke up more sensitive to this campaign than could have been anticipated. After the publication of photos and videos evidently staged, on November 21, the regime allowed a video call between Peng Shuai and the president of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach, who lent himself to an exercise that should have closed the debate. The tennis player asked Bach to respect her private life.
Clearly, Peng Shuai is under surveillance during her appearances, and China loves televised and other confessions. His “return”, among other things, would be more credible if the affair did not undergo total censorship in China and if the photos and videos were not destined exclusively abroad. Beijing wants to save its slightly bruised image and above all the winter Olympic games scheduled in less than three months, which in the current context seriously risk being boycott of Westerners.
The problem is that the damage is now done. The story highlighted the arbitrariness of the repressive system and the persistent taboo regarding sexual abuse by powerful individuals. On the internet there is talk of the “Streisand effect”, from the name of the actress who, wanting to hide information, ended up bringing it into the spotlight.
Beijing will still have to work hard to make people forget an event that calls into question the exemplarity that the regime claims to embody.
(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)
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