Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused the International Olympic Committee (IOC) of sportswashing serious human rights violations in the case of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai.
During a virtual press conference Tuesday, HRW China Director Sophie Richardson denounced the IOC’s role in collaborating with Chinese authorities on Peng Shuai’s reappearance.
“In 2008 we were hopeful that they [the IOC] would show some spine and oblige Chinese authorities to live up to some basic promises,” said Richardson, referring to when China first staged the Olympic Games.
“I almost think fondly back to those days because, if nothing else, the IOC has shown in the last few days just how desperate it is to keep a Games on the rails no matter the human cost,” added Richardson, referring to next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics. Beijing is the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games.
On Sunday, the IOC said in a statement that its president, Thomas Bach, had a 30-minute video call with three-time Olympian Peng Shuai, joined by a Chinese sports official and an IOC official.
The statement said that, during the call, Peng appeared to be “doing fine” and “relaxed,” and said she “would like to have her privacy respected.” The IOC did not explain how the video call with Peng had been organized.
HRW also suggested the IOC should have done more to protect the Chinese Olympian athlete.
“It’s a whole different order of magnitude to see Thomas Bach, in a photograph with a woman, Peng Shuai, under intense pressure, we can reasonably assume from other cases, to walk back her claims of sexual assault, rather than figuring doing everything in his and the organization’s power to call that out and make sure that she is afforded the support and investigation and prosecution that may well be warranted,” Richardson said.
In response, the IOC told CNN that the “Olympic Games are the only event that brings the entire world together in peaceful competition.” “They are the most powerful symbol of unity in all our diversity that the world knows,” said the IOC statement.
“In our fragile world, the power of sport to bring the whole world together, despite all the existing differences, gives us all hope for a better future.
“Given the diverse participation in the Olympic Games, the IOC must remain neutral on all global political issues.
“At all times, the IOC recognises and upholds human rights as enshrined in both the Fundamental Principles of the Olympic Charter and in its Code of Ethics.
“We are responsible for ensuring the respect of the Olympic Charter with regard to the Olympic Games and take this responsibility very seriously.
“All interested parties have to provide assurances that the principles of the Olympic Charter will be respected in the context of the Games, and both the Japanese and Chinese organisers have done so for the recent Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and upcoming Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.”
Ability to report in China
Concerns were raised during the HRW press conference regarding the ability to report in China and how that could impact Peng’s ongoing situation.
“It is very hard to report on what is happening in China,” the Director of Global Initiatives for Human Rights Watch, Minky Worden, said.
“Chinese officials are blocking not just a United Nations backed investigation into human rights violations, but also the journalists the world relies on to reveal new abuses.
“So, it was a big surprise on Sunday to see the International Olympic Committee president and senior officials interview Chinese three time Olympian and former world number one doubles tennis player Peng Shuai by video,” Worden added.
Peng, 35, went missing on November 2 after she said on Chinese social media that she had been sexually assaulted and forced into a sexual relationship with Zhang Gaoli, 75, who was China’s vice premier from 2013 to 2018.
The allegations were censored in mainland China. CNN’s broadcast signal was also censored during Peng reporting.
Earlier on Tuesday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the government hoped “malicious speculation” about Peng’s well-being and whereabouts would stop, and that her case should not be politicized.
Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, declined to comment on whether the Chinese government will launch an investigation into Peng’s sexual assault allegations against former Vice Premier Zhang. He repeated previous comments made to reporters, saying Peng’s situation “was not a diplomatic issue.”
Peng, a two-time grand slam doubles champion and one of China’s top tennis players, publicly accused Zhang of coercing her into sex at his home, according to screenshots of a since-deleted social media post dated November 2.
Her disappearance from public life for more than two weeks following the accusation prompted an outpouring of international concern, with the Women’s Tennis Association and the United Nations calling for an investigation into her allegations of sexual assault.