The story of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai accusing former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her into a sexual relationship is an ongoing worldwide media buzz. The incident may represent a sea change in the way professional communities react to human rights violations, wherever they may occur.
Peng is the first person in the history of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule to use her real name and identity to publicly accuse a top official of abusing his position for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
The international community quickly launched a #WhereIsPengShuai social media campaign after Peng’s whereabouts became a mystery. It was the first time that such a campaign was not driven by the victim’s family or human rights activists, but rather by her international fellow peers: the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and its CEO Steve Simon, numerous professional tennis players, and other sports stars.
The list of the members of the athletic community who have spoken out under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai is long and growing.
This Time Is Different
Until now, the CCP hasn’t worried about the international sports community paying attention to ongoing human rights violations in the country. With the huge commercialization of professional sports, the Chinese government has enough leverage to exert significant influence over the commercial interests of professional sports individuals, teams, and organizations.
Just two years ago, the entire NBA caved to pressure from the CCP after Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey posted a tweet (which he later deleted) in support of Hong Kong’s freedom. As a result, the NBA was forced to back down, and many of its star players came out and criticized Morey.
The difference this time is that the WTA has continued to speak out for Peng at the risk of extensive commercial losses. International tennis stars have also spoken out in support of Peng, despite the risk of being boycotted by the Chinese government.
It is thus unlikely that the CCP will be able to quell international public outrage over Peng in the same way that it has been able to suppress other “sensitive” matters.
International Peer Support
The athletic community’s strong support for their peer Peng Shuai demonstrates extraordinary moral courage. It has the potential to create a paradigm shift for promoting the advancement of human rights — especially in countries like China.
Under the new paradigm, whenever the government of an authoritarian country commits a human rights violation, in addition to human rights advocates stepping up to defend the victim and other governments issuing statements to express their concern, the victim’s peers must also speak out in a timely and sustained manner. This is equally if not more critical.
When the victim is a journalist, fellow journalists and the entire news industry should express concern and show solidarity.
When the victim is a professor, other educators and the entire academic community should express concern and show solidarity.
When the victim is an actor, the performing arts and entertainment industry should express concern and show solidarity.
When the victim is a writer, the literary community at large should express concern and show solidarity.
When the victim is an entrepreneur, the business community should express concern and show solidarity.
Pressure on the Chinese Government
This model of international peer support will be more effective in terms of exerting pressure on the Chinese government.
When human rights organizations or the governments of other countries call out the CCP on its human rights abuses, the CCP simply dismisses such claims as “trying to stage a color revolution” or as “interfering in China’s domestic affairs.”
But the appeals of individuals and NGOs that are not directly involved in human rights work or politics will be more effectual, because their voices will resonate more readily among ordinary Chinese people, thus generating social pressure from within China.
Their voices will also resonate more strongly within the international community, spanning all professional sectors. This is significant, because China cannot afford to cut ties with all industries, nor can it afford to cut ties with the most exceptional talent of any particular industry.
Hopefully, the WTA’s bold approach to handling the Peng Shuai case will create a new paradigm in terms of how the international community can help the people of China defend their basic rights. However, it is clear that this will be a long-fought battle.
For the time being, most industries still have yet to awaken. If Peng Shuai’s case is any indication, professionals are no longer going to sit back silently when one of their peers is mistreated by an authoritarian regime. Some may initially be reluctant to stand up against a tyrannical government like the CCP, but as more people find the courage to speak out, it empowers others to follow suit.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.