Why the IOC Stepped in on China’s Behalf in the Peng Shuai Controversy

Chinese tennis players Peng Shuai appears to be gone from public view after posting allegations that a top Chinese official sexually assaulted her, the Women’s Tennis Association made repeated requests to speak to Peng—and demanded that China investigate her allegations.

Peng was first to talk with the International Olympic Committee, not the WTA. On Sunday, the Olympic Games’ organizing body revealed that Thomas Bach, the President of IOC, had called Peng via video.

In a statement, the IOC said Peng was well and asked people to respect her privacy—but it made no mention of Peng’s Sexual assault allegations. Some advocates for human rights questioned Peng’s safety and freedom due to the opaque IOC declaration.
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Human rights advocates say the IOC’s intervention in the Peng case shows it chose to side with officials in China—host of the 2022 Winter Olympics February—instead of athletes.

Human Rights Watch Monday charged the IOC with undermining athletes safety and rights. Peng was also attacked by the IOC because it failed to reveal whether or not they had supported her claims of sexual assault.

“The IOC has vaulted itself from silence about Beijing’s abysmal human rights record to active collaboration with Chinese authorities in undermining freedom of speech and disregarding alleged sexual assault,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a Statement.

Bach held a video conference call for 30-minutes with Peng, Peng, and other officials of the committee on Sunday. In this conversation she assured them she felt safe in Beijing. However, the committee decided to not comment on Peng’s sexual assault claim against Zhang Gaoli (retired Vice Premier) in a Nov. 2, post. Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform.

Peng said Zhang had coerced her into having sex with him some three years ago—but added she could not provide any evidence. Censors quickly scrubbed Chinese social media clean of Peng’s allegations, and officials kept mum on media questions about it.

Jules Boykoff, a sports politics expert at Pacific University in Oregon, said Bach showed “ghastly disregard” for Peng’s allegations. “He appears to have shoved the key issue of serious claims of sexual abuse off to the side while simultaneously making his goal quite transparent, which is to essentially create a flimsy cover story for the Chinese authorities so that the games could go on,” Boykoff says.

Asked about these allegations of covering for China, the IOC sent a statement—saying the video call was intended to enquire about Peng’s “well-being and safety” and that “safeguarding the well-being of athletes is paramount to the IOC and the Olympic Movement.” The organization will not comment further.

Following resistance from the international community, Questions about the safety of Olympic athletes, Peng retracted her accusation in a statement that the WTA said was questionable—then reappeared in a series of photos and videos that did not quell questions about her safety and freedom.

Boykoff says Peng’s ordeal will have a “chilling effect” on athletes set to compete in Beijing who have been vocal against injustices in the country.

He believes the IOC’s intervention in the Peng case should shatter the myth that the Games aren’t political. “It definitely points to larger issues with the International Olympic Committee. He says. “Sometimes being neutral means actually taking a side, and this is one of those moments.”

Human Rights Watch called on the IOC to use its influence in China, a country with a history of stifling dissenters, to convince officials to stop censorship of Peng’s case and allow her to leave the country without fear of retaliation.


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