Peng Shuai, tennis diplomacy and online freedom.
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If Future Tense had a huge marketing budget – okay, any marketing budget – we’d be tempted to spend it all on a sponsorship deal for a women’s tennis tour. And we encourage you to do the same.
The Women’s Tennis Association, as you may have heard, is suspending all its tournaments in China out of concern for Peng Shuai, the Chinese star who logged on in early November to accuse Zhang Gaoli, a former member of the powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo of the country, of sexual assault.
The WTA’s position is a rare triumph of principle over commercial interest in international sport, where the compromise of values to accommodate “sportswashing” by human rights abusers seeking to whitewash their reputations has become. a central element of the economic model (pagination of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee). If you haven’t already, read the remarkable statement from WTA President and CEO Steve Simon: “If powerful people can suppress women’s voices and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug , then the foundation on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer a huge setback. I will not and cannot let this happen to the WTA and its players. There is nothing symbolic or token about this position: the WTA had bet heavily on China to develop the game and its revenue.
But the WTA’s decision and the growing pressure on the Communist regime is also a victory for the much-denigrated internet these days.
Peng Shuai initially published his accusations on November 2, and censors rushed to erase all traces of them from the Chinese internet within an hour (but not before they were shared by thousands of people and they inspired an online movement #WhereisPengShuai supported by world tennis stars). The player fell out of sight for days, but the world has let Chinese authorities know we are watching. The internet grieves a lot these days for spilling bile, but this saga has been a reminder of its power to hold powerful people accountable.
Beijing’s response has been typically awkward. Authorities reluctantly posted staid pictures and messages from Peng, then staged a high-profile conversation with the gullible IOC president. It all had the curatorial sensibility of a neat hostage video.
It’s not clear whether President Xi Jinping will end up blinking and accepting the kind of independent scrutiny – and accountability – that the WTA demands. It is certainly not his style. But the PR disaster for him couldn’t come at a worse time, as China prepares to host the Winter Olympics early next year and ratify them as the era of Xi Jinping – he is aiming here at Mao’s status – at an important Party congress. Later in the year.
Moreover, the Peng tragedy did not unfold online like most Western outrage campaigns against China do, and this must be of concern to the Communist Party. This is a case where its leaders have to worry about both national public opinion and international pressure. The scandal touches on widespread societal concerns about party privileges and endemic sexism in the ostensibly egalitarian society. This is very different from the examples of Western expressions of disapproval surrounding Chinese actions – whether towards the Uyghur minority, Tibet, Hong Kong or Taiwan – which end up rallying public sentiment behind the party. The nationalism playbook doesn’t apply here, and many ordinary Chinese citizens are probably cheering on the WTA.
The Peng Shuai case also takes place at a time when Xi and his regime are cracking down on independent life in China and reasserting their control over civic and economic activities that had gained some autonomy. The regime intends to close the chapter on its more accommodating stance towards foreign markets, investors and standards (including the idea that it should cede direct control over large swathes of society) in the pursuit of growth. Just last year, the government cracked down on China’s biggest tech companies, its online celebrity / super fan culture, online gaming, IPOs beyond its jurisdiction, cryptocurrency, online education, the sharing economy, and the list goes on. While China has called for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics as part of its campaign to take its place as a responsible power abiding by global rules, the message that is being projected in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in 2022 is radically different: we can do it on our terms, handle it.
What happened to Peng Shuai is not an anomaly under a regime that perfected the culture of cancellation inherited from its Soviet benefactors at the start of its revolution. Even the richest entrepreneur in the country, Alibaba founder Jack Ma has all but abandoned the scene since a speech he gave over a year ago in which he criticized the government for an outdated approach. of the regulations. The authorities’ reaction was swift and harsh, blocking the IPO of its fintech Ant Group empire and penalizing its companies in several ways. Since then, sightings of the once irrepressible billionaire (including a hostage-like stilted video in which he reflected on “thinking and learning” about the need for rural revitalization and common prosperity) have been scarce. The cumulative impact of all these crackdowns on China’s technological competitiveness is not yet known, but they could very well add up to a decisive goal against its camp. Yet the Communist Party is focused on maintaining full control of the country, even if at times this imperative clashes with the country’s long-term economic interests. You don’t have to “beat” the United States on the world stage if you lose power in the process.
Sport, like it or not, will play a disproportionate role in 2022 in the geopolitical struggle between authoritarian and liberal democratic norms, and in the ongoing battle to determine our freedoms of expression online. After all, the year will be marked by the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing and the FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar later in the year.
Even before the Peng case, there were concerns about how long China might go to suppress speech during the Olympics, and now the athletes have a new case (one involving another athlete, not a question abstract policy) to express themselves on. The organizers, seizing the pretext of COVID-19, impose heavy restrictions on the media. And they will likely pressure the IOC to strictly enforce its rule (relaxed for the Tokyo Summer Games) against any political message from the athletes.
The NBA and the English Premier League have previously been punished by Beijing for individual expressions of online solidarity with Hong Kong and Uyghurs, and neither of the leagues have responded with the moral eagerness of the WTA. More recently, Enes Kanter of the Boston Celtics (a Turkish star who was naturalized American this week and who added “Freedom” to his name to mark the occasion) spoke forcefully about China’s mistreatment of his Muslim population, and on what he considers the moral complicity of other NBA players who do not speak about the situation.
Regimes in China, Russia, and the Persian Gulf states have been quick to use sport to impress both international public opinion and their own people about their standing in the world, and international sport has widely profited from the transaction. But the spotlight on the internet is harder to target and control than the old broadcast paradigm, no matter how many censors and how impenetrable your firewall is.
Sport may well provide the ultimate test for the high-flying act of authoritarians and, hopefully, justification for the internet, which needs its own form of sports whitening to whitewash its reputation.
For more analysis of what’s going on in the Chinese tech space, join us this Wednesday, December 8 at 6 p.m. ET for our online event Is China Canceling the Internet? starring future New America ASU security member Li-Ying Liu, and Foreign Affairs editor Daniel Kurtz-Phelan.
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