A Gender Gap in Empathy: The disappearance of Peng Shuai

On Nov. 2, world-renowned Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai posted on the social media site Weibo accusing former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli, a high ranking official of the Chinese Communist Party, of sexually assaulting her. Within hours, the post had been deleted and Peng Shuai had disappeared. 

For a month there was still no sufficient evidence to suggest that she was alive and well — and acting on her own free will. However, in mid-December, Peng Shuai reappeared to tell Chinese media that she had never accused anyone of sexual assault and that her initial social media post had been misunderstood. She told news outlets that she had been living at home for the three weeks during which the international community was concerned over her disappearance.

Yet, many remain unconvinced by her explanations and concerned by her remarks. While this was certainly not the first disappearance of a national star in China, with Chinese celebrities such as Fan Bingbing, Zhao Wei and Jack Ma all disappearing for some length of time, this is the most high profile disappearance of a woman who has accused a man of sexual assault. 

The extremely short time frame between Peng Shuai’s post and her disappearance raised many questions. Did the Chinese government expect her to make such accusations? Do online surveillance and security systems prioritize flagging sexual assault accusations over other restricted content? Why has only the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) offered any form of solidarity with Peng Shuai? And most importantly, where is she? 

Due to her status as an international tennis star, Peng Shuai’s disappearance has garnered political and media attention on a global scale. Unfortunately, despite high numbers of people fighting for an investigation into her disappearance, many of the tennis associations that previously supported her and profited off of her talent are not calling for greater transparency regarding her wellbeing and whereabouts.

The varied reactions from different tennis associations is indicative of the fact that female athletes are not considered a priority on an international stage. The only organization that threatened to cancel events in China and cut economic ties is the Women’s Tennis Association, which has been advocating for Peng Shuai since her initial disappearance. At the start of December, nearly a month after her initial post and disappearance, the WTA officially suspended all events it previously had planned in China. The association will continue to boycott until it is provided sufficient evidence that she is alive and acting of her own free will. 

This is in stark contrast to fellow tennis and sports organizations, such as the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), both of whom have expressed their support for the short statement which China has made on the issue, speaking on behalf of Peng Shuai and requesting her privacy at this time. The difference in responses between the WTA and the ATP and IOC, two organizations with significantly more power than the WTA, further emphasizes a startling divide when it comes to the protection of women in sports. 

In a sport which already historically pays women less than men, it comes as no surprise that the women’s organization is the only one advocating for a star player. It is disappointing yet unsurprising to see the IOC’s refusal to acknowledge the strange circumstances surrounding Peng’s disappearance, especially when considering that she herself is a three-time olympian. However, the IOC’s silence does have a plausible explanation; China exerts huge influence over the Olympic committee, preventing the organization from calling out even the most blatant of human rights violations. The ATP, on the other hand, is in no such situation and must do more to advocate for Peng.

The gathering storm following Peng Shuai’s accusations and subsequent disappearance has been growing both in China and around the world, with government officials unable to dampen the rising tide of support that Peng Shuai has received in the past weeks. 

In order to speak freely about Peng Shuai online in China, users are now redacting blocked words from their posts such as “Peng Shuai,” but keeping the general message the same in the hopes of their posts remaining up for a longer period of time. There are many posts referring to “the tennis star” or “the incident”, but nothing with specific information. The stranglehold on information that China has created has generated an environment where it is difficult to believe the government’s assurances that Peng Shuai is safe, considering that the CCP is attempting to maintain radio silence on all other platforms.

Apart from legislation in individual countries (such as Title IX in the United States), little legal advocacy exists for the protection of female athletes on an international level. The sad truth is that there is no legal means of recourse for international athletic associations to take to protect their athletes, particularly for associations backing female athletes, which are already funded less than their male counterparts. 

While the IOC recently released a new framework for fairness and inclusion of female athletes, there must be greater accountability on the part of these organizations, as well as further legislation to ensure that female athletes can compete without fear of being assaulted, or of disappearing.

In the post which triggered her disappearance, Peng Shuai wrote: “Even if I court disaster like an egg against stone or a moth to a flame, I will tell the truth about you and me.” 

Peng risked her life to share her message with the public, and it is a tragedy that her allegations have taken a back seat to her disappearance. All other tennis organizations must stand in solidarity with the WTA and Peng. Advocacy for her safety should not stop now that she has resurfaced. Instead, the international community must advocate for the protection of victims and the guarantee of their safety upon speaking out. 

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