Its Human Rights Record in Question, China Turns to an Old Friend

When China’s leaders came under pressure to answer questions about the health and whereabouts of Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star, they turned to a friendly face.

They put Ms. Peng on a video call with members of the International Olympic Committee, a global sports organization that for years has turned a blind eye to Beijing’s human rights record. True to their reputation, I.O.C. officials did not ask her about her claim that she had been sexually assaulted by a powerful former Communist Party leader, an allegation that led censors to scrub the details from the Chinese internet.

Perhaps no international organization has a more symbiotic relationship with Beijing. The Chinese government treats its growing success in sports as symbolic of the country’s rise as a global power. The 2008 Beijing Olympics helped transform the world’s image of China, a feat the government hopes to replicate next month when the Winter Olympics begin near the same city.

In return, Beijing provided the I.O.C. with access to 1.4 billion potential sports fans and heaps of money. In 2014, the state broadcaster China Central Television signed a broadcasting deal with the I.O.C. that SportBusiness, a news and data service, estimated to be worth about $550 million. China also brought corporate access, like a sponsorship deal with Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, that Bloomberg reported was worth $800 million.

China’s relationship with the Olympics could be best illustrated by Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, who led the I.O.C. for two decades, and the foundation in China that bears his name.

The Samaranch Foundation was founded by his son, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., who is also chair of I.O.C.’s coordination committee for the Beijing 2022 Games, and counts the I.O.C. as a founding partner. The foundation, which has all three Chinese I.O.C. members on its board, is devoted to carrying on the elder Mr. Samaranch’s legacy of courting China, which had made him something of a hero there.

Peng Shuai at the 2008 Beijing Olympics that helped transform the world’s image of China, a feat the government hopes to replicate next month when the Winter Olympics begin near the same city.Credit…Toby Melville/Reuters

It has also carried on his legacy of smoothing over China’s troubling conduct. In September 2018, when word was drifting out that as many as one million members of largely Muslim minority groups were detained in internment camps and prisons in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, the foundation organized a charity soccer event there. It has also held events in Tibet, despite longstanding religious suppression there.

“The I.O.C. keeps saying that it’s a politically neutral organization, and wants to stay out of politics,” said Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York. “But it entirely ignores the fact that it has always been used as a political tool by the Chinese government to legitimize its standing and its policies, including crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.”

Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr. is chair of I.O.C.’s coordination committee for the Beijing 2022 Games.Credit…Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

In written comments, the I.O.C. said the Samaranch Foundation operates independently from the committee. The Samaranch Foundation didn’t respond to requests for comments.

The I.O.C. has also defended its talks with Ms. Peng, a former Olympian, and called criticism “silly.” Thomas Bach, the I.O.C. president, has talked about the importance of “political neutrality” for his organization. “We can accomplish our mission to unite the world only if the Olympic Games stand above and beyond any and all political differences,” he said in a speech.

Jules Boykoff, professor of political science at Pacific University in Oregon, said the I.O.C.’s stance only emboldens Chinese leaders.

“The I.O.C. typically hides behind the thin scrim of political neutrality,” said Mr. Boykoff, author of “Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics.” “In the case of Peng Shuai, Bach actively ran political interference for Chinese political authorities.”

He added, “Bach’s willful gullibility in this instance is an important pivot point.”

After the I.O.C. released a statement saying that Ms. Peng was “safe and well,” several Twitter users commented in Chinese that Mr. Bach reminded them of the elder Samaranch, “the old friend of China.” That was my reaction, too.

The I.O.C. has been standing on a moral slippery slope regarding China since the days when Mr. Samaranch Sr. was the president from 1980 to 2001. The country credited him with helping Beijing win its bid to host the 2008 Games. His image and voice were so ubiquitous on Chinese TV that he was known as “Grandpa Samaranch” for children growing up in the 1990s and 2000s.

He defended China despite wide-ranging criticism of its poor human rights records and suppression of free speech.

The I.O.C. released a statement saying that Thomas Bach had a video call with Ms. Peng and that the three-time Olympian was “safe and well.”Credit…International Olympic Committee/EPA, via Shutterstock

“The Chinese are people who have long memories and know how to demonstrate their deep feelings of loyalty to people who, in difficult times, have stayed at their side,” Mr. Samaranch wrote in an opinion essay after the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Headlined, “Why I love and respect China as much as I do,” it was published in a Spanish newspaper, an English-language newspaper in China and the Chinese edition of his biography.

After his death in 2010, China’s then president sent condolences to the I.O.C. and his family, a gesture usually reserved for heads of state. He called Mr. Samaranch “the old friend and good friend of the Chinese people” and said China would never forget him. Chinese state media ran many stories commemorating his friendship with China.

China built a Samaranch memorial, including a park, that is the size of 32 American football fields in the port city of Tianjin.

Understand the Disappearance of Peng Shuai

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Where is Peng Shuai? The Chinese tennis star disappeared from public view for weeks after she accused a top Chinese leader of sexual assault. Recent videos that appear to show Ms. Peng have done little to resolve concerns for her safety.

Who is Peng Shuai? Ms. Peng, 35, is a three-time Olympian whose career began more than two decades ago. In 2014, she rose to become ranked No. 1 in doubles in the world, the first Chinese player, male or female, to attain the top rank in either singles or doubles tennis.

Why did she disappear? On Nov. 2, Ms. Peng posted a long note on the Chinese social platform Weibo that accused Zhang Gaoli, 75, a former vice premier, of sexual assault. Within minutes, censors scrubbed her account and a digital blackout on her accusations has been in place ever since.

How has the world responded? The censors might have succeeded had Steve Simon, the head of the Women’s Tennis Association, not spoken out on Nov. 14. Ms. Peng’s accusations have drawn the attention of fellow athletes, the White House and the United Nations.

What has China said? Very little officially. Instead, state-run news organizations have been the quasi-official voices to weigh in. Notably, they are doing so on Twitter, which is blocked within China. Their messages appear to be aimed at communicating with the wider world.

The younger Mr. Samaranch founded the Samaranch Foundation in 2012 “to secure the Samaranch-China legacy.” It received donations from the I.O.C., the Chinese Olympic Committee, both the Chinese and the Spanish governments, 10 Chinese companies and others.

One of its bigger donors is the sportswear maker Anta, which pledged to continue using cotton from Xinjiang, where forced labor was used amid the government suppression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups. Anta’s chief executive sits on the foundation’s board.

Mr. Samaranch Jr. is mentioned as one of the potential successors to Mr. Bach in 2025.

The foundation has made it clear where its loyalties lie.

It celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in a 2019 post on its website, calling it a “love letter.” Earlier this year, it organized a nationwide red-themed running race for middle school students for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

Mr. Samaranch Jr. and the foundation he founded are public and unabashed about their love for China, but he insists that it is better to be “quiet” and “discreet” when it comes to China’s human rights abuses and Ms. Peng’s allegation.

When pressed on holding the Games in China, he echoed the committee’s stance that it must separate sports from politics.

“We have to keep that neutrality. It is too precious what we are trying to defend,” he was quoted by The Associated Press as saying last month at an online briefing on the preparations for the Beijing Games. “We are what we are, and we can do what we can do.”

Then during another online media briefing this week, he urged for a “need to be discreet” in Ms. Peng’s situation. “Everybody should be concentrating on the well-being of Peng Shuai and not trying to use this for any other purpose,” he said.

“Don’t write it off the silent diplomacy,” he added. “It’s a very powerful tool and we plan to stick to that.”

His father made the argument a long time ago, calling the China critics “alarmists.” If anything, the Chinese government has become a lot more authoritarian after the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But it seems, no matter what, the Chinese government can count the I.O.C. as a friend.

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