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  • Writer's pictureNina Kolarzik

What Happened to Them? Part 2: Peng Shuai

Read What Happened to Them? Part 1: Elnaz Rekabi here.

Occasionally, someone pops up in the news. Their name is mentioned, their story told, and they are linked to important political events or societal developments. And as suddenly as they appear in the spotlight of media attention, they disappear again. Observing this phenomenon I began to wonder: Why are these people and their lives of any interest? And what happened to them after they vanished from our screens? It is not just gossip. Their stories and how they are narrated—in the media as well as on the political and social stage—can reveal certain things about the systems we live in. More than that, individual stories are more emotional, hence more attention-grabbing, than general transmissions of information, and this attention can serve as a shield to protect politically persecuted individuals. Yet, the duration and nature of their telling reflect the attention span of society, and the people whose stories are told may be quickly forgotten, their protection or the attention to an important issue in their lives are linked to fading with our memory. 

In this series of articles, I bring to the spotlight four people who have been and disappeared from the news at some point, and who have caught my interest. Following Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi, I am writing about the case of Peng Shuai in this article.

A successful female athlete herself, Peng Shuai is the most famous Chinese tennis player, who has participated in several Olympics and is a No.1 rank tennis doubles player who won Wimbledon in 2013 with her partner Su-Wei.

In November 2021, Peng posted on Weibo—a Chinese social media service—that she had been raped by Zhang Gaoli, a former member of the Chinese government and member of the Communist Party. She writes that he had forced her to have non-consensual sex with him. This post was deleted within half an hour, and Peng disappeared from the public. It is suspected that her absence was a forced disappearance by the Chinese authorities. Where is Peng Shuai?” became a frequent question, and people in the tennis world and beyond posted this hashtag, expressing concerns and demanding information about her safety and whereabouts. Peng’s case served to draw attention to the Chinese regime frequently causing the disappearance of people.

Zhang Gaoli (left) and Peng Shuai (right). Photo by Prachatai.

At the Winter Olympics 2022 in Beijing, Peng was spotted watching several events, and the IOC president Thomas Bach met with her. During the Games, Peng gave the French sports newspaper L’Équipe an interview. It was a controlled interview, which the IOC helped to organise and which took place in the presence of an official from the Chinese Olympic committee. In this interview, Peng said that the social media post had been misunderstood by the “outside world.” She explained the removal of the post simply with “Because I wanted to” and stated that she never went missing. 

The “outside world” however read the situation as an effort by the Chinese regime to downplay her disappearance. Peng says that she was in contact with friends, colleagues and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), however, no friends outside of China or WTA officials had been in contact with her. Since the Olympics, she has not really been visible, but attention to her case faded. In the L’Équipe interview, Peng also announced her retirement from professional tennis, explaining it with continuing problems due to her knee injury and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2023, the WTA claimed to have been in touch with people close to Peng who reassured them that she and her family were safe. Exact evidence, however, is not available due to the restrictions on media within China. In the same year, the WTA returned to China for the first time since 2019. In 2020, they had originally stated that they would not be present in China until the case of Peng Shuai was fully explained. Yet even though there still is no full explanation to this date, sports officials seem to move on.

When individuals appear on the news and their stories are told in the media, it is at times easy to forget that they are more than symbols. Instead of being brief sensations that fade within a moment as our attention is diverted to the next headline, continued reporting on their stories reminds us that they are real, living people: Their stories do not end when media attention shifts but continue beyond that.

Written by Nina Kolarzik.

Photo by Prachatai


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