by Roger Kaplan
In early November, the Chinese (PRC) tennis star Peng Shuai wrote on her blog that she had been aggressed in 2018 by a Communist Party boss and vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, who made her his concubine. The blog post, on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, was removed in less time than it takes to play a set, 20 minutes.
Peng’s glory days as an athlete were in the mid-teens, when she was the first Chinese tennis player to reach a no. 1 ranking; hers was in doubles. In that format she won Wimbledon 2013 and Roland-Garros 2014, partnering with the Taiwan (Free China) player Hsieh Su-wei (at a time when the Chicoms were offering Hsieh big bucks to defect to their side); Peng was also strong in singles, ranked no. 14.
Peng has not been seen in public or heard from since her blog was censured.
A transparently faked message that she is well, at home and resting, was put out on a Communist-controlled social media platform over her signature, but it has gained no credibility.
Peng’s broadcast was, it seems, the last cry of a still-born Chinese me-too movement, the authorities having squashed the efforts by Chinese women to speak out about rape and abuse in their country, especially when they concern the ruling class. Peng has been effectively “disappeared” and communist Chinese authorities refuse to answer questions about her. Imprisoned? House arrest? Tortured and brainwashed?
The tennis establishment reacted with swift expressions of alarm and dismay, denouncing the Chinese communist authorities for hiding the affair. The players’ associations, WTA and ATP, joined by the voices of many players, among them Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Andy Murray, and Novak Djokovic, have called for removing mainland Chinese tournaments from their circuits.
By contrast, with the winter Olympics scheduled for next February, the International Olympic Committee has stayed quiet on Peng.
So has the NBA, as expected: the basketball establishment has been at best ambivalent and at worst craven in its response to communist tyranny. Coaches and players have been rebuked and censored for calling attention to Beijing’s brutal repression of democrats in Hong Kong, the slave labor practices from which such companies as Nike and Apple benefit, the persecution of minority groups like the Uighurs, religious believers (notably Christians), and more.
The Biden administration, after several weeks, made a pro-forma request by the White House spokesman that the communist authorities come clean about Peng’s whereabouts.
The tactical question when reacting to gross human rights violations is: will it work? Decades ago, the tennis circuit boycotted South Africa to signal its disapproval of apartheid, but Arthur Ashe, who had suffered from Jim Crow tennis as a junior and risen to the no. 1 ranking in U.S. tennis, insisted on playing there. Criticized for this at the time, in historical perspective his gesture is viewed as contributing to the wearing down of apartheid.
The Biden administration might be wise to reconsider its position in a not unrelated matter, which is the “Summit for Democracy” planned for December 9-10. Obviously, conferences on governance are different from athletic competitions. For one thing, they draw less interest. President Biden mentioned the summit in his first major address last February, and everyone, including he, apparently forgot about it until last week, when a list of invitees was released, with the caveat that it was only a draft. Nothing has been heard yet on how much of the virtual meeting, managed by State Department and White House officials, will be accessible to the public.
The leaking of the tentative list, however, moved the media’s interest, to the degree there was any, from the substance of the thing toward a game of who’s-in-who’s-out, like in a high school hallway before a big dance. It seems to have occurred to no one this might be an opportunity for the administration to go on a war of ideas offensive. Instead of taking, as may be feared, an apologetic approach to the shortcomings of democracy (especially in America), a robust and confident U.S. government would argue that democracy is a means to an end — freedom — which governments are organized to protect.
One need not partake of the catastrophism that views the U.S. today as threatened with the loss of our liberties to recognize the issue is always of concern. Freedom is always only a generation away from being lost, Ronald Reagan famously said, and he surely was not the first American president to voice this worry.
To many on the conservative side, the current occupant of the White House is off to a weak start as a guardian of freedom. He could, however, play a bit of catch-up at his democracy sit-down. Specifically, he could invite Red China. Get the reds in the meeting and then put it to them: Free Peng!
The shortsighted idea that only democratic regimes should be invited to a meeting on democracy and that rogue or evil regimes can be shown up simply by not inviting them, has a petulant feel. Are we talking about key political ideas and issues or who controls the guest list? Many in the State Department and White House undoubtedly would prefer to keep Taiwan out, surely they bristle at the thought of Hungary or Poland being in.
These are countries that know what if feels like to be in mortal danger. Should Poland be off the list because its government believes in defending its borders, or does this go against “democracy” as defined today in Washington’s power places?
But would not the purpose of a meeting for and about democracy be advanced by clear and graphic contrasts between freedom and tyranny? Consider the educational value of having Red China there and asking its party stooges to account for Peng and explain why it is threatening little Taiwan (and Australia, e tutti) because they are not worshipping a supreme helmsman nor implanting electronic chips in kids’s heads, nor, come to think of it, testing biological warfare on their own people and the whole world.
In the same vein, why should Cuba be disinvited? The regime’s reps should be asked why the singers of the hit Patria y Vida are in jail. The song, racing around Latin America like an anthem of liberty, should be the theme music of the conference.
Unfortunately, there is reason to doubt whether raising such questions can do more than demonstrate — again — that American foreign policy lacks the sense of purpose shown when Franklin Roosevelt boldly went to sea to meet Winston Churchill “somewhere in the Atlantic” and draft the freedom manifesto known as the Atlantic Charter.
Still, one of the virtues of free societies is that there is always room to correct errors. On December 9, President Biden could, in welcoming the attendees to his summit, invite them to reflect on some words of Abraham Lincoln, pronounced on another, far bleaker, December day.
We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.
He might do well to reflect on them too.
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Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.
Photo “Peng Shuai” by Robbie Mendelson CC BY-SA 2.0.