World

Human rights groups want proof of Chinese tennis player’s wellbeing. Venezuela’s opposition performs dismally in polls for governors and mayors. Austria locks down as Covid-19 cases grow again in Europe. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Fears for Peng Shuai’s safety after sexual assault claim

A photo allegedly posted to WeChat by Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, with the text “Happy weekend”, which was shared on Twitter.
A photo allegedly posted to WeChat by Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, with the text “Happy weekend”, which was shared on Twitter.
Credit: WeChat

Great power rivalry

China: On November 2, Peng Shuai, a 35-year-old Chinese tennis player, published a post on her social media account that detailed an alleged sexual assault by Zhang Gaoli, a 75-year-old former Chinese vice-premier. Twenty minutes later, the message was removed. But screenshots spread, even as her name was blocked from online searches in China and the comments on her account were disabled.

Peng, one of China’s most accomplished players and the first to achieve a No. 1 ranking – in women’s doubles in 2014 – then went quiet, prompting demands by the Women’s Tennis Association, rights groups, the United Nations, and leading tennis players for China to prove her whereabouts and investigate the sexual assault allegations. Despite Chinese state media releasing messages that she purportedly wrote, as well as photographs and footage that apparently showed her healthy and smiling, it has been impossible to verify her whereabouts or her wellbeing.

Several countries have raised concerns about Peng, including the United States and Australia, which demanded China address questions about her welfare.

On Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry dismissed the concerns about Peng, saying it was “not a diplomatic matter”.

“I hope certain people will cease malicious hyping, let alone politicisation,” a spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, told reporters.

The treatment of Peng has added to calls for countries to boycott the next Winter Olympics, to be held in Beijing in February. The US and others were already considering boycotts in response to China’s mass detention of Uygurs, its crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, and its growing domestic repression.

The only person outside China known to have had direct contact with Peng was the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, who had a video call with her. According to the IOC, in it she had asked “to have her privacy respected”.

Several rights groups this week condemned the call, accusing the IOC of collaborating with China in undermining free speech and ignoring sexual assault allegations.

“The IOC has shown in the last few days just how desperate it is to keep the Games on the rails, no matter the human costs,” said Sophie Richardson, from Human Rights Watch.

Two months before Peng’s apparent silencing, one of China’s best-known #MeToo campaigners and women’s rights activists, Sophia Huang Xueqin, disappeared. It has since emerged that Huang Xueqin, a 33-year-old journalist, is in detention. She is facing charges of “inciting subversion of state power”.

The neighbourhood

Indonesia: Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, has taken initial steps to impose a carbon price from April next year as the country prepares to adopt a carbon trading market by 2025.

The new price on carbon will apply to coal-fired power plant operators, which will have to pay for emissions that exceed limits set by the government. Initially, the price per tonne will be much lower than international rates – a move the government says is necessary to limit increases to the cost of electricity.

Widodo announced plans for the new carbon pricing mechanism at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow but has been criticised for failing to do enough to curb activities by the mining and forestry sectors. In July, the government brought forward its plan to move to zero emissions from 2070 to 2060, or sooner. It plans to end the use of coal by 2056.    

Indonesia, which has 275 million residents, is the world’s largest thermal coal exporter, followed by Australia, and is the world’s eighth-largest greenhouse gas emitter. About 65 per cent of its energy is powered by coal.

Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Indonesia’s finance minister, told Reuters earlier this month that Indonesia could phase out coal-fired plants by 2040 if it received sufficient financial support from the international community.

Democracy in retreat

Venezuela: Since 2017, the opposition has refused to compete in elections in Venezuela, citing concerns about vote rigging and fraud by the government. In the meantime, Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, who won a disputed ballot in 2018, has clung to power and overseen a further decline in the nation’s ruined economy.

Unemployment and inflation have soared, millions of people have left the country, and, according to a recent study by a local university, 77 per cent of the population lives in extreme poverty.

Last weekend, the opposition decided to contest an election for the first time in almost four years, fielding candidates in ballots for governors and mayors after foreign observers were allowed to monitor the polling. But the opposition performed dismally, winning in only three out of 23 states against Maduro’s ruling socialist party and its allies.

The result, and a low voter turnout of just 42 per cent, were blamed on political divisions within the opposition and on the late decision to compete.

Maduro said the results “must be celebrated”. But his decision to allow the election to be monitored, as well as his recent political negotiations with the opposition, indicate he is under pressure to have foreign sanctions removed so that petrol exports can again flow freely.

On Monday, opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who is recognised by some countries as Venezuela’s president, admitted the result was disappointing but said the election had been unfair. He urged the opposition to unify if it wants to compete against Maduro at the next presidential election in 2024.

Spotlight: Europe locking down

On Monday, Austria began its first lockdown since vaccines became widely available, as soaring Covid-19 case numbers prompted the government to introduce compulsory vaccinations from February 1, 2022.

About 66 per cent of Austria’s 8.9 million residents are fully vaccinated. But the rollout has virtually stalled since early August, when the vaccination rate was 52 per cent.

The chancellor, Alexander Schallenberg, said a vaccine mandate was required because “months of persuasion” – including additional freedoms for the vaccinated – had failed to convince enough people to receive doses. The government is likely to impose fines on those who refuse to be vaccinated, but the ages involved and other details such as medical exemptions are yet to be released.

The lockdown and vaccine mandate prompted a fierce backlash, including mass protests in Vienna that attracted far-right groups and neo-Nazis. But other nations in Europe, which are also suffering severe outbreaks, are expected to introduce similar measures.

Health experts say the worsening outbreaks are due to an easing of restrictions and a lack of mask-wearing, as well as large numbers of unvaccinated people, and colder weather that has kept people indoors. In the past two months, the number of cases in European Union nations has increased from 47,000 a day to 220,000.

Austria’s lockdown is due to last a maximum of 20 days, but restrictions may remain in place for the unvaccinated.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 27, 2021 as "Fears for Peng Shuai’s safety after sexual assault claim".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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