What we know about tennis star Peng Shuai and China’s censorship of the #MeToo movement

One of China’s biggest sports stars, tennis champion Peng Shuai, appeared to publicly accuse a former top government official of sexual assault. As Stephanie Sy explains, there are now new questions about what happened, and the broader issue of the #MeToo movement in China.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of China's biggest sports stars appeared recently to publicly accuse a former top government official of sexual assault.

    As Stephanie Sy explains, there are now new questions about what happened and the broader issue of MeToo in China.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, this month, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai seemed to accuse a former top Chinese government official, Zhang Gaoli, of forcing her to have sex, making Zhang the highest-ranking Chinese official called out by China's fledgling MeToo movement.

    Peng posted the allegation to a Chinese social media site, which promptly deleted it. High-profile players voiced their support, amid fears she went missing. Naomi Osaka tweeted: "Censorship is never OK at any cost. I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and OK."

    But, today, Chinese state TV tweeted a copy of an e-mail Peng allegedly sent to the Women's Tennis Association.

    "The allegation of sexual assault is not true," she wrote. "I'm not missing, nor am I unsafe."

    For more on this, I'm joined by Jane McManus, a sports reporter and director of the Center for Sports Communication at Marist College.

    Jane, this has all gotten very complicated in the last few hours. Today, Peng Shuai supposedly sent this e-mail to the WTA denying her original claim and saying she was not sexually assaulted.

    But, then, this, afternoon the chair of the WTA puts out a statement, saying: "I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the e-mail or believes what is being attributed to her."

    He says her safety still needs to be verified.

    What do you make of all of this?

  • Jane McManus, Marist College:

    Well, the WTA has been trying a lot of different avenues to try to make contact with Peng Shuai.

    And they have not been able to do it. So to have an e-mail which says very curious things like, "I am safe and resting at home," which seems to be not the case, I think it raises questions for them about the veracity of this e-mail, how it was written, under what circumstances somebody might have written this e-mail.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Jane, China is an enormously important market for U.S.-based sports leagues. Were you surprised to see the chair of the WTA, Steve Simon, double down on demanding investigation behalf of one of its players?

  • Jane McManus:

    Actually, the WTA has made, I think, the strongest statement since in reaction to something that China has done.

    We haven't seen this from other leagues, like the NBA or the Premier League, which have also had players who've spoken out against some alleged abuses that China has had. The WTA is really risking a lot here with its relationship with China. It has at least 10 tournaments in a normal pre-COVID year in China, top tier.

    It also has major sponsors who are Chinese companies, so risking millions, if not more, when risking this relationship. I mean, I think the WTA and certainly Simon's statement says that the WTA values some of these underlying values of the league a little bit more than it's going to value the money.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Could we see the WTA boycott China?

  • Jane McManus:

    Simon has threatened to remove tournaments from China if the situation isn't resolved in a way to his satisfaction and the safety of Peng Shuai isn't assured. So I think we really could see something like that.

    So many times, these negotiations between companies and potential human rights abuses take place behind closed doors. There is a quiet diplomacy that happens when there's a crisis like this. And so to make such a public statement challenging China's version of what's happening here is a risky play from the WTA.

    And I don't know exactly what the end is going to be. But there's potential for real damage here in this relationship.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    I want to talk about this in the larger context with the MeToo movement in China.

    Peng's original social media post, as you know, Jane, was deleted within minutes by censors in China. They're very good at that. How big of a problem are these allegations for Beijing, given the stature of this sports star, as well as the stature of this government official, who is allied with the president, Xi Jinping, himself?

  • Jane McManus:

    I think it's a real optics problem for China. They're going to be hosting the Olympics in just a few weeks.

    So, the idea, the intersection between China and sports is very much in the forefront of a lot of people — people's thinking right now. You have a lot of governments questioning how involved they should be in this Olympics with the human rights allegations against China.

    And so, obviously, this is — this is something that really stands out, the way that they have cracked down not just on Peng Shuai's social media, all mentions of tennis in some cases. I think The New York Times had a report where certain keywords like that were no longer searchable in China.

    But this has happened with the larger MeToo movement as well, where key phrases related to feminism, related to sexual assault allegations or MeToo have also been censored.

    So this is a tactic that China has used to crack down on dissent, which is part of the thing that actually sparks the critique that it then has to try and since to censor.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Sports reporter Jane McManus, thank you for joining the "NewsHour."

  • Jane McManus:

    Appreciate it. Thank you for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we will continue to follow that story.

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