U.S. lawmakers and a number of rights groups are criticizing the International Olympics Committee (IOC) after its President Thomas Bach took part in a phone call with missing Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai.
“It has been disturbing to see the IOC take statements from CCP [Chinese Communist Party] propagandists at face value since Peng Shuai’s disappearance, but their promotion of this latest stunt turns the IOC from willfully ignorant into an active participant in the CCP’s mistreatment of Peng,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said in a statement on Nov. 22.
McCaul is the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Peng, 35, once ranked world No. 1 in women’s doubles, disappeared from the public view after posting on Chinese social media allegations of sexual assault against a retired high-ranking CCP official on Nov. 2. She alleged that former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli coerced her into sex several years ago and then the two had an on-and-off consensual relationship.
Her disappearance triggered international concern. She re-appeared in Chinese state-run media over the weekend, with one video showing her at a restaurant and another showing her taking part in a local tennis tournament as a dignitary. But her re-appearance has not quelled concerns about her safety.
On Nov. 21, Bach and Peng held a 30-minute video call. According to the IOC, Peng said on the phone that she was “safe and well” and “living at her home in Beijing.” Before the call, the IOC had been silent about Peng’s situation.
“It’s clear the IOC is more interested in its financial relationship with the CCP than in protecting the wellbeing of Olympic athletes,” McCaul added.
Five Democratic House lawmakers—Jackie Speier (Calif.), Lois Frankel (Fla.), Brenda Lawrence (Mich.), Veronica Escobar (Texas), and Sylvia Garcia (Texas)—issued a joint statement on Nov. 22 saying that the IOC’s video call was insufficient to show the status of Peng’s wellbeing.
“We join those in the Women’s Tennis Association, and around the world, in calling for immediate and independent proof of Shuai’s whereabouts and wellbeing, and agree that the video released by the International Olympic Committee is insufficient.”
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) said the IOC call “does not change our call for a full, fair, and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault.”
“In the absence of Shuai being able to speak openly and attest publicly to her safety and whereabouts, all options for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games must be on the table as well as other options to exert diplomatic pressure,” the five lawmakers stated.
Joining the WTA, several rights groups have slammed the IOC for its failure to do more for Peng.
Global Athlete, an international sporting rights organization, criticized the IOC for its “nonchalant approach” to Peng’s disappearance and accused it of showing “indifference to sexual violence and the well-being of female athletes” in a statement.
“The IOC’s press release is a harmful attempt to appease both concerned athletes and the Chinese authorities. The release pretends that Peng never made sexual assault allegations and has not been missing for more than two weeks,” it stated.
“The statements make the IOC complicit in the Chinese authority’s malicious propaganda and lack of care for basic human rights and justice.”
Beijing is scheduled to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in February.
Wang Yaqiu, senior China researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, took to Twitter to say that the IOC’s call was “disturbing.”
“The IOC is now actively playing a role in the Chinese government’s enforced disappearance, coercion and propaganda machinery,” Wang wrote.
The Chinese regime has a track record of engaging in the practice of forced disappearances, in which victims are held at secret locations with their families unaware of their whereabouts. The Chinese regime deploys the practice to silence dissent in favor of so-called social stability under its one-party rule.
Chinese human rights activists and lawyers are often the targets. For example, Wang Quanzhang, a human rights lawyer, was forcibly disappeared by CCP authorities for more than three years after he was arrested in 2015. He was released in April 2020 after serving a 4.5-year sentence on charges of “subversion of state power”—a catch-all charge Beijing often uses against dissidents.
Human Rights Watch is calling on the IOC to “retract its statement regarding the video call,” it said in a statement. Additionally, it says that the Olympic body must urge the Chinese regime to “cease all censorship of reporting and discussion of Peng’s allegations.”
On Nov. 23, the International Service for Human Rights, a nonprofit with offices in Geneva and New York, also criticized the IOC for failing to use its leverage over China.
“The IOC has, at best, been instrumentalized and, at worst, activity acquiesced, in supporting Chinese Communist Party propaganda and high-level impunity for the grave crimes of sexual assault and enforced disappearance,” the nonprofit wrote in a statement.
“This is a grotesque betrayal of women’s rights, athletes’ rights, and the Olympic ideal.”