Peng Shuai and the Meaning of Life
In 1989 a lean, singular figure stood alone in front of a long, ominous line of tanks sent to Tiananmen Square to suppress thousands who were calling for democracy.
Two bags in hand, the nineteen-year-old Wang Weilin didn’t flinch. Standing in front of a row of mighty machines intent on restoring order, he stood still and brave.
Never before had the words of the California student leader Mario Savio seemed so real: “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part…And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”
Yes, Weilin’s gesture fell short. The world’s mightiest dictatorship didn’t crumble. But his stance soon became a poignant symbol of defiance, a solitary plea and an expression of the human spirit that brought to mind Gandhi in an Indian jail or Rosa Parks on an Alabama bus.
Fast forward to November 2, 2021, when Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis pro who in 2014 won the French Open and Wimbledon doubles and reached No. 1 in doubles, spoke out, making stunning accusations against a top official, Zhang Gaoli, who went from hauling bags of cement as a youth to negotiating oil deals with Vladimir Putin. Eventually he became China’s Vice-Premier.
Shuai, who was once said to be China’s “Golden Flower,” posted a 1,600 word recollection of the seven years of fun and dysfunction she and Zhang had. At times it read like a stream of consciousness ramble, full of self-punishment, doubts and confessionals. She called herself “a bad girl,” and spoke of playing chess and mahjong. She bristled at Zhang’s judgmental wife and then claimed that the former Vice-Premier had sexually assaulted her three years ago.
She described a nuanced and complex relationship. Peng wrote, “I should have never come into this earth…I have nowhere to put down my feelings of the past three years. You played with me and when you didn’t want me you discarded me.” Shuai, like so many before her, conceded she had no proof, “just the real experiences of twisted, ruined me.”
Her words expressed a raw defiance: “Even if I’m an egg throwing myself at a rock, even if I’m a moth flying at a flame, courting my own destruction…I will still speak the truth of us.”
Clearly Peng was distraught. Who can say exactly what motivations were in play? China’s relentless social media censors immediately deleted her post and scrubbed the social media landscape. Just three months before Beijing would host the 2022 Winter Olympics, authorities were hoping to skirt another embarrassment.
But Sally Jenkins at the Washington Post was adamant: “China’s president is on a concerted campaign to enforce a worldwide gag order over his murderous, rapacious, club-whacking policies. He very much would like to insinuate his power into your phone via surveillance, and he will continue to export his tyranny through trapping market entanglements.”
But rarely has a social media post up for only ten minutes had such an impact. No one could contact Shuai. Her seeming disappearance triggered an international incident. The hashtag #WhereisPengShuai went viral. Top tennis players all rallied to her side. The Women’s Tennis Association, which 14 months earlier had strongly backed Naomi Osaka’s racial justice initiatives, was emphatic in its support of Peng. WTA President Steve Simon demanded that the group contact and actually see Shuai in real time, that there be a confirmation of her well-being and that an investigation of the matter be “full, fair and transparent.”
Over the past decade, in a pivotal move, the WTA partnered big-time with China. Stunning stadiums were built, and nine WTA tourneys are now played there. A billion dollars was reportedly headed from China to the WTA through 2028, and the year-end WTA Championship has a whopping $14 million in prize money. Reportedly the organization does one-third of its business with the country where, in 2011, 114 million Chinese watched Li Na win the French Open. Now the WTA has threatened to pull out of China if its demands are not fulfilled.
China has a long and curious history of mixing sports, politics and propaganda. Decades ago, it was locked down in Cold War isolation. But in 1971 it used racket sports (well, ping-pong) to open diplomatic relations with the US In 1982, amidst much intrigue, the aspiring 19-year-old Chinese tennis player Hu Na defected in Santa Clara, CA.
Both Beijing’s 2008 Olympics and the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics in February have been used to enhance China’s standing. Both games drew campaigns that urged boycotts.
In 2019 an NBA Executive, Daryl Morey, posted a “Stand with Hong Kong” tweet that backed pro-democracy demonstrators. In a flash, the government pulled the plug on pro basketball in China, until the NBA backed down.
Then again, many sports bureaucracies have caved in to financial pressures. The IOC, which Jenkins called “the toady of tyrants,” stepped into the Shuai case and said they had just recorded a video conference with Peng. They wouldn’t share it, but they said Shuai was doing well in her Beijing home and didn’t want to be bothered. But these efforts by the IOC, along with emails purportedly sent by Shuai, were all consistent with China’s longstanding playbook on whitewashing scandals. They seemed sketchy, and they raised as many questions as they answered.
Professor Ann-Marie Brady at the University of Canterbury commented that if the emails relating to Peng were “written by her it would not likely have been done so of her own free will.” Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that Peng’s claims “made her a menace to the state since she’s from outside of the Party apparatus…[Her] allegations make the Party feel as if it’s losing control of its own narrative. It’s threatening to them how one woman’s voice can potentially tear down the facade of the Party leadership.”
The government is always trying to “tell a good story of China, internationally and nationally,” Brady says. “A story about rape and sexual impropriety by a former vice-premier is very damaging to the Party’s reputation, so it must be squashed,” she says.
In 2007, China waged war against officials who had mistresses and “second wives.” In 2013, they went after corrupt officials who accepted bribes and spent extravagantly.
Interestingly, on other fronts, the leaders of tennis federations have recently been doing yeoman’s work. Michael Dowse managed to stage the 2020 US Open amidst COVID fear, and Craig Tiley is again dealing with many turbulent issues before the 2022 Australian Open, just as he did earlier this year.
As for the moves of the WTA’s Steve Simon – a former Adidas executive and a key manager at the Indian Wells Masters – they differed mightily from the approaches of the IOC, FIFA, the NBA and corporations like Nike and Coke, who are loyal and uncritical of the Olympics.
And although the White House, the UN, Britain, France, Canada and the ATP strongly backed the initiative to secure Shuai’s safety, it was the WTA that shone. Kelley Eckels Currie, the Donald Trump-appointed former US Ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues, said the WTA “has become the world’s most effective human rights organization over its leadership on the case and willingness to lose money to stand by its principles…If you had told me a week and a half ago that the WTA was going to be the most effective and bravest human rights organization in the world I would have thought you were bananas.” Currie told Reuters, “The WTA is essentially putting more than a billion dollars on the line over the life of a single member.” She said that in 25 years of working in the human rights field she’d never seen a group “actually put something on the line like this for human rights.”
Currie seemed stunned by the WTA’s guts. But for a century, bold advances and protests – little and large – have been part of the fiber of women’s tennis. In the 1920s, Suzanne Lenglen dared to be athletic. She lept brazenly, sipped cognac on changeovers and actually bared her ankles. Alice Marble reportedly was a World War II spy who raced down the Alps and went on to insist that tennis stopped being racist. But it was the courageous Althea Gibson who integrated the game. There are few greater rebels and free thinkers than Billie Jean King. She and the Original 9 transformed the nature of modern sport. So did Venus and Serena. Judy Murray is Europe’s Billie Jean. Plus, so many others – Li Na, Shahar Peer, Katrina Adams, Ons Jabeur to name a few – have been pioneers. In fact, just to reach the heights of women’s tennis, to travel the world to win or lose in packed (or empty) stadiums takes great guts. So, really, it’s hardly shocking that the WTA was gutsy.
Recent videos from officials show Peng at a youth tourney, eating out and looking jolly. While one Chinese newspaper said the Shuai situation was “an ideological struggle between China and the West,” an American commentator noted, “Everyone else engaged with Beijing seems either inattentive, afraid or compromised and immobilized to the point of tacitly condoning crimes against humanity.”
Clearly Shuai’s story is a continually evolving saga with many parts at many levels. Each day there’s more news, and according to former ambassador Currie, as long as players and the WTA continue to raise her case, “it will continue to remain in some kind of spotlight.”
Jon Wertheim claimed that there is also “considerable opportunity [for the WTA] in this crisis: to cut ties with a country so unaligned with its mission. What a way to say, ‘Our athletes’ safety and our moral principles – our belief in women’s rights, human rights and democracy – matter more than our balance sheets.’”
In the end, Shuai’s courageous post, just like the stance Wang Weilin took, may not lead to apparent change in a regime whose goal, says Jenkins, is “to crush Western democratic ideas, wage ideological war to dominate the Internet and take Taiwan and fold it into ‘full national reunification.’”
Still, Weilin’s stance and Shuai’s “I will speak the truth” post and the WTA’s suspension of play in China are memorable moments of light. Christine Brennan noted, “When the history of this often rudderless, unmoored, disappointing and even despicable time in worldwide leadership in all areas of international life, politics and culture is written, there will be a joyous footnote, and it will tell the story of what thee Women’s Tennis Association did in late 2021.”