Top tennis player Peng Shuai was a remarkable spectator in the stands in freestyle skiing last week. Together with IOC boss Thomas Bach, she witnessed the gold medal of compatriot Eileen Gu. Last November, Peng accused former Deputy Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli of sexual abuse on social media. A post that disappeared from the Chinese internet within half an hour. In an interview with the French L‘Equipe, she now states that she never accused anyone.
“We tried to answer the question everyone asked, “Where is Peng Shuai?” Bach said to journalists last Wednesday. “That’s why we invited her to meet here, to show that it‘s not a one-off thing. We’ll stay in touch. We have the question, “Where is Peng Shuai?” answered. And we continue to do that now that we have invited her to Lausanne,” said Bach, referring to the city where the IOC headquarters are located.
A performance that policymakers in Beijing will appreciate, but human rights organizations are anything but reassured by this latest performance by Peng, of whom Chinese state media has already spread photos and videos on Twitter. “The role that the IOC plays is despicable,” says director Peter Dahlin of human rights organization Safeguard Defenders. The main goal of the Chinese authorities is to stop any conversation about the disappearance, and the allegations of sexual abuse, he believes. “The IOC has delivered more effective PR in that respect than any other public relations agency in the world could have ever done. People are doing the dirty work for the Communist Party, and that for an organization that claims to be politically neutral.”
According to Dahlin, it is “pretty clear” that this performance has been directed by the state, especially since most of the videos and videos have so far been brought out through state channels. “Statements and pre-written confessions of guilt, self-critiques: appearances like Peng Shuai‘s serve the same purpose: to control narrative,” says Dahlin.
The Swede knows what he’s talking about. Until a few years ago, he supported human rights lawyers in China, for which he himself was arrested by the security forces in early 2016. He was incarcerated for 23 days but got out and was allowed to leave the country after a forced admission of guilt that aired on state television.
That experience gave him a unique look under the hood of the Chinese propaganda device. “The questions and answers were on a piece of paper that both the interviewer and I got pressed into my hands and that we had to learn by heart. I was surrounded by a dozen security officers who directed it,” Dahlin says via Signal. “Somewhere it was very humorous because it was so extreme. Some things had to redo: speak slower, change your answers here or there,” he continues. Dahlin continued his human rights work in Southern Europe after his expulsion.
“Confessions of debt are as old as the Chinese Communist Party,” he continues. “That, as in my case, it‘s televised is a new development that we’ve seen since Xi came to power.”
Since that time,
the room for criticism of the government has been curtailed even further since that time. Three protest parks, designated as a place for Chinese people to express their grievances during the 2008 Summer Games, did not stand the test of time. In 2022, the parks, officially due to covid, were deleted in its entirety. Not that it could be used much in 2008: the 77 applications were rejected without exception. The authorities stated that many of the problems faced by applicants had already been resolved. Visitors we speak to in the Ritanpark say they can‘t remember.
They’ll remember Thomas Bach in China. A little further away, at the Olympic Community Park in Dongsi, in the heart of Beijing, a spot has been set up for a bust of the boss of the IOC. A living legend for the Chinese, who come to the park in these winter days for their daily pleinddance. “He‘s doing great,” says one of the park goers, asked about his opinion on the IOC chief. “The world should have more people like Bach. Then the world would be more peaceful and united.”
An opinion Dahlin doesn’t share with him. “Everything that relates to the MeToo movement in China is off limits. Especially when it comes to party vouchers, and one considers it an existential threat to the party. As a result, with the help of the IOC, the allegations made are now in danger of being forgotten.”
In the Peng Shuai case, the IOC emphasized that it was rather a sports organization. “Our job is to stay in touch with her, to make personal and silent diplomacy,” said a spokesperson. To add that it doesn‘tto the IOC is to make a verdict on the allegations Peng Shuai made, or to determine whether there should be an investigation. Or as IOC boss Bach put it, “We’re trying to figure out step by step if she wants an investigation. Of course, we would support her in that, but it is her decision. It‘s her life, it’s her accusations.”