Peng Shuai tells IOC she’s fine, but doubts remain

Society & Culture

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) issued a statement that said the recent videos “don't alleviate or address the WTA's concern about her wellbeing and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion.”

peng shuai on video chat
Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

Amid growing calls for proof that Péng Shuài 彭帅 — who had remained silent for nearly three weeks after accusing former Chinese vice premier Zhāng Gāolì 张高丽 of sexual assault — is safe, the tennis star appeared in several photos and videos over the weekend. On Sunday, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach reportedly had a 30-minute video call with Peng in which she said she is “safe and well” in Beijing.

The IOC released a statement that said Peng “would like to have her privacy respected at this time.”

Peng Shuai and IOC's Thomas Bach
Photo from the IOC’s website purportedly showing IOC president Thomas Bach in a video call on Sunday with Peng Shuai

But questions and doubts persist. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) issued a statement that said the recent videos “don’t alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her wellbeing and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion.”

“This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern.”

Among those who have recently tweeted about Peng with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai are tennis stars Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.

On Thursday, Chinese state media began scrambling to explain Peng’s whereabouts. State broadcaster CGTN sent a tweet that purportedly showed an email sent by Peng to WTA chairman Steve Simon.

No one knows how CGTN obtained the screenshot. Simon questioned the authenticity of the email he received. “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” he said. “I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail.”

Later, photos of Peng appeared on her WeChat Moments (similar to Facebook’s newsfeed) with the caption “Happy weekend.” Again, this was tweeted by an account associated with Chinese state media:

Some observers noted the appearance of Winnie the Pooh in one of the photos, a character who has at times been banned from Chinese social media due to its association with Chinese leader Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 — though it should be noted that Winnie the Pooh is not banned in China at the current moment, and the significance of its appearance in Peng’s Moments is up to conjecture.

Global Times editor Hú Xījìn 胡锡进 then weighed in.

He tweeted on Saturday that he “acquired two video clips” of Peng enjoying a meal with friends — identified as China Open officials and Ding Li, an employee of Li-Ning.

On Sunday morning, Hu released another video of Peng, purportedly at the opening ceremony of a tennis event in Beijing:

And then, the IOC statement and video (which has not been publicly released), which was the first time the IOC has mentioned Peng’s name since her disappearance.

The IOC’s actions stand in stark contrast with that of the WTA, which has asked serious questions at every step and forced China to show more and more of Peng.

Simon and the WTA have set an example for other organizations that have been cowed by Chinese threats of economic boycotts. The U.S.-based organization has said it is willing to pull nearly a dozen events scheduled in China for next year worth millions of dollars.

Earlier today, the Washington Post’s Eva Dou noted that the French embassy posted about Peng on its Weibo page, one of the few social media posts on this subject that hasn’t been censored.


What to expect with Zhou Guanyu as China’s first F1 driver

Zhōu Guànyǔ 周冠宇 will be the first full-time Chinese Formula One driver when he takes a seat with team Alfa Romeo next season.

Currently sitting second in the Formula 2 standings, a fair distance behind fellow Alpine academy driver Oscar Piastri, there have been some questions about whether Zhou, who brings serious sponsorship money with him, deserves one of F1’s coveted 20 seats ahead of other drivers on the F2 grid.

Clearly, Piastri has shown more on-track performance this year. Sitting more than 30 points clear at the top of the standings, it looks almost certain that the Australian will be crowned F2 champion at the end of the season.

However, Piastri’s achievements should not overshadow the great year Zhou has had. There are also some other considerations when it comes to Zhou leapfrogging Piastri.

First, Piastri is driving for Prema in F2, while Zhou is with UNI-Virtuosi. While F2 is a spec series, i.e., all the equipment is the same, some teams are better than others for setting up their cars to race fast. Prema has long been regarded as one of the best in F1’s junior division. While UNI-Virtuosi is one of the better teams, it is not of the same caliber as Prema, which has had two of the last four champions.

Second, Zhou is absolutely smoking his UNI-Virtuosi teammate this year. Zhou’s 142 points tower over Felipe Drugovich’s 59. And Zhou has remained fairly consistent throughout the season, picking up points and wins as the season has gone on, including feature wins at Bahrain and Silverstone.

While it’s fair to say that Zhou was selected over Piastri due to the significant sponsorship money that he will bring to Alfa Romeo, it’s unfair to say that he doesn’t deserve it.

Motorsport has had a long history of “pay drivers.” Niki Lauda, one of the greatest drivers, started his career by buying his way into Formula 2, while current Red Bull driver Sergio Perez has had a successful career with the significant financial backing of the one-time richest man in the world, Carlos Slim.

Also, the move was endorsed heavily by F1 itself. The series has been trying to expand further into the Chinese market, especially after its Shanghai GP’s contract was recently extended to 2025. The possibility of a second Chinese race has been in the cards for a long time, and a thriving Chinese driver makes this far more likely.

Zhou proved his quality earlier this year after taking a risk to his reputation by competing in the Asian Formula 3 series in an attempt to gain more Super Licence points. The FIA, motor sport’s governing body, stops people from buying their way into F1 by operating a racing license system, with only Super License holders allowed into F1.

Zhou, who had a patchy 2020 season, missed out on the required number of Super License points for an immediate promotion to F1. Rather than wait until the 2023 season, he took the bold decision to enter the Asian F3 Championship, knowing that only winning the series would give him the points required. Despite inconsistency in his open-wheel career up until that point, Zhou performed reliably, winning the title on the final day.

Zhou Guanyu wins F3 Asia title, one step closer to becoming first Chinese F1 driver

So how will he do next year?

Fans should not expect immediate fireworks from Zhou.

Paired alongside Lewis Hamilton’s current Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, Zhou will be arriving to a team in transition, with two new drivers in the hot seat.

His first challenge will be to keep up with Bottas. The Finnish driver has looked off the pace for more than a season now at the front of the grid, but has raw speed and experience. Bottas, who has been praised for his teamwork, should be able to help Zhou transition in his rookie year.

Major regulations changes should see the F1 grid become more even, and Alfa will hope that its car next year will begin to challenge for points consistently, after finding itself as a bottom-half team too often this year.

Zhou needs to show that he can be reliable while improving with each race. On a one-year deal, it’s clear that Alpine has plans to promote him into its car at some point in the near future, with current driver Fernando Alonso close to retirement. However, without the security of a multi-year contract, Zhou will need to be careful that he doesn’t lose the momentum he has built, or he could find himself without a seat at either Alfa Romeo or Alpine for 2023.

Either way, it will be a great moment for Chinese motorsports to see Zhou line up on the F1 grid at the Melbourne GP next year. While we won’t see Zhou challenge for a world title any time soon, we will see him putting the building blocks in place to inspire a new generation of Chinese race drivers.


Other Stories:

Table tennis: China and US join forces at world c’ships on 50th anniversary of ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ (The Straits Times)

“History will be made in Houston, Texas, as China and the USA will join forces at the 2021 World Table Tennis Championships Finals with two pairs formed of both American and Chinese players entering the Mixed Doubles competition on the year marking the 50th anniversary of Ping Pong Diplomacy.” (ITTF)

China shines at ISU Short Track World Cup (Xinhua)

Just a reminder, we have a China sports podcast — the China Sports Insider Podcast — now as part of the Sinica Podcast Network. Read co-host Mark Dreyer’s introduction of it here.

The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina.