‘Where is **?’: Fans in China Elude Censors to Talk About Peng Shuai

Julien Chen was getting ready for bed when he learned that one of his favorite Chinese tennis players, Peng Shuai, had made #MeToo allegations against a powerful Chinese official.

A friend told him to check Ms. Peng’s social media account. “There’s a ‘huge melon’ in the tennis circle,” the friend wrote, using the Chinese metaphor for a bombshell.

Mr. Chen couldn’t find anything. He searched the word “tennis,” but Ms. Peng — one of China’s most famous athletes — appeared in barely any results. With stunning efficiency, China’s censors had began scrubbing references to her allegations from the internet.

“All of a sudden, it became a forbidden topic,” Mr. Chen said.

Ms. Peng is not the first celebrity in China to be almost entirely erased by censors. The country’s online propaganda machine can make just about any story — or person — vanish. Yet her international profile has made the task harder, and China’s attempt to brush her allegations aside has been met with deep criticism around the world.

On Wednesday, the Women’s Tennis Association Tour suspended its future tournaments in the country, prompting China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to reiterate that China was “opposed to the politicization of sports.” But Chinese tennis fans are pushing back as well, using subtle, sometimes tongue-in-cheek language to voice their frustration online while trying to outmaneuver censors.

China’s censors have been scrubbing references to Ms. Peng and her allegations from the internet.Credit…Roman Pilipey/EPA, via Shutterstock

On Chinese social media, there has been little outright discussion about Ms. Peng. A popular online tennis fan club in China, a forum called Tennis Post Bar, hasn’t been updated since Nov. 2, the day Ms. Peng, a three-time Olympian, publicly made her accusations against Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier.

To evade the censors, Chinese tennis fans have started to use obscure references to call more attention to Ms. Peng’s silence. Instead of identifying her Chinese name and specifying the details of her allegations, some people have used the vague references like “a tennis player” and “the spat.”

There was a seemingly unrelated post about art that used the expression “hitting an egg against a rock.” It echoed a line in Ms. Peng’s original allegation, in which she wrote that going up against someone as powerful as Mr. Zhang was like “hitting a rock with an egg.”

Even state media figures have found themselves challenged by how to discuss Ms. Peng without setting off alarms. Commenting on Twitter, which is banned in the country, Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of the Chinese Communist Party’s official state newspaper, referred to Ms. Peng’s accusations as “the thing people talked about.”

Two weeks into the media blackout, some of the biggest names in tennis began to wonder aloud about Ms. Peng’s safety. Chinese state media responded by releasing a flurry of content for international viewers purporting to confirm that she was happy and in no harm. One of the stories managed to reach the domestic audience in China.

It included pictures of Ms. Peng signing giant tennis balls for fans at a youth tennis tournament. A post on the verified account of China Open, a professional tennis tournament in Beijing, was shared nearly a thousand times, and caught the attention of exasperated commenters.

Chinese state media released pictures of a smiling Ms. Peng with fans at a youth tennis tournament last month.Credit…Qingqingparis, via Reuters

“It’s the most reposted youth tournament event post I’ve ever seen in my career,” Zhang Bendou, a veteran tennis expert in China, wrote on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. Others made more mocking remarks. “Almost everyone is asking ‘where is **’?” one person wrote, leaving Ms. Peng’s name out of the comment. “She showed up.”

For Lucy Wang, a dentist and a tennis fan in Beijing who watched one of Ms. Peng’s singles matches in person at the China Open in 2017, the photos were enough to put her mind at ease. “Knowing that she’s back is enough for me,” said Ms. Wang, 37. “I have no idea why people outside China are still not satisfied.”

The International Olympic Committee later published a statement and photo of Ms. Peng smiling in a live video call with the organization’s president. China, which is set to host the Winter Olympics in February, seized on the moment to complain that most Western media and sports organizations had been biased and dishonest about the case.

On Thursday, the I.O.C. released another statement, saying members of the organization had held a second videoconference with Ms. Peng this week, but offered no details about the conversation. It said it was using “quiet diplomacy” with Chinese sports organizations to address the matter.

Steve Simon, the chief executive of the W.T.A. Tour, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Chinese authorities, demanding an investigation into the #MeToo allegations. News of the W.T.A. Tour suspension circulated briefly on the Chinese internet Thursday morning.

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.

Some users on Weibo expressed support for the decision before their comments were removed. “This time I’m with the W.T.A.,” one wrote. Another was puzzled by the fact that Mr. Zhang had not yet been detained. “He really has very strong backing,” the post said. “Ridiculous.”

While these anonymous online commenters have tried to use the internet to push back against the censors, the seriousness of the allegations has made many in China hesitant to talk about Ms. Peng in public.

The International Olympic Committee published a photo of Ms. Peng in a live video call with its president, Thomas Bach.Credit…Greg Martin/International Olympic Committee, via Reuters

Ashley Tian did not find out about Ms. Peng’s accusation until Nov. 3, the day after it was posted. At that point, “online discussions were as clean as a blank sheet of paper,” she said. Ms. Tian, a former sportswriter in Shanghai, heard about from a former colleague, who explained the details in a voice message.

At dinner that evening, Ms. Tian shared the message with some friends, who leaned in closely for the discussion. “Should we talk about it here?” Ms. Tian recalled one friend asking nervously. They changed the subject.

“People don’t even dare to discuss it in public,” she said. “I guess what Peng really went through would remain a mystery forever.”

As an avid fan who had seen Ms. Peng play tennis at tournaments in Zhuhai and Shenzhen, Mr. Chen said his experience of trying to find out what had happened to her that evening was both frustrating and an eye-opener. “I was shocked and clueless how fast these things evolve,” he said.

Mr. Chen is still unsettled by the whole experience and said he was disappointed with the W.T.A. Tour’s announcement on Wednesday, saying he prefers to watch female tennis players because he believes women have more diverse skills on the court than men do.

He said especially loved to watch Ms. Peng’s powerful serves, but questioned whether her allegations would ever be investigated in China. “We know these kinds of things happen and we care about them,” he said. “But most of us choose to remain silent.”

He added: “That’s the reality in China.”

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