” Where is ** ? “: Fans in China escape censors to talk about Peng Shuai

Julien Chen was preparing for bed when he learned that one of his favorite Chinese tennis players, Peng Shuai, had made #MeToo allegations against a powerful Chinese official.

A friend told her to check Ms. Peng’s social media account. “There is a ‘huge bowler’ in the tennis circle,” the friend wrote, using the Chinese metaphor for a bomb.

Mr. Chen found nothing. He searched for the word “tennis,” but Ms. Peng – one of China’s most famous athletes – appeared in virtually no results. With astonishing efficiency, Chinese censors began to erase references to his allegations on the Internet.

“All of a sudden, it became a forbidden topic,” Mr. Chen said.

Ms. Peng is not the first celebrity in China to be almost entirely erased by censors. The country’s online propaganda machine can wipe out just about any story – or person -. Yet its international profile has made it more difficult, and China’s attempt to dismiss its claims has been heavily criticized around the world.

The Women’s Tennis Association Tour on Wednesday suspended future tournaments in the country, prompting China’s foreign ministry to reiterate that China was “against the politicization of the sport.” But Chinese tennis fans are pushing back as well, using subtle, sometimes ironic language to express their frustration online while trying to outsmart censors.

On Chinese social media, there has been little frank talk about Ms Peng. A popular online tennis fan club in China, a forum called Tennis Post Bar, has not been updated since November 2, the day Ms. Peng, a three-time Olympian, publicly brought charges against Zhang Gaoli, a former Deputy Prime Minister. .

To escape censorship, Chinese tennis fans began to use obscure references to draw more attention to Ms. Peng’s silence. Instead of identifying his Chinese name and specifying the details of his allegations, some people have used vague references such as “a tennis player” and “the spat”.

There was a seemingly unrelated article on art that used the phrase “hitting an egg against a rock”. This echoed a line from Ms. Peng’s original claim, in which she wrote that confronting someone as powerful as Mr. Zhang was like “hitting a rock with an egg.”

Even figures in the state media found themselves faced with the difficulty of discussing Ms. Peng without raising the alarm. Commenting on Twitter, which is banned in the country, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, called Ms. Peng’s accusations “what people were talking about.”

Two weeks after the media blackout, some of the biggest names in tennis began to question Ms. Peng’s safety aloud. Chinese state media responded by posting a flurry of content for international viewers claiming to confirm that she was happy and doing no harm. One of the stories managed to reach the national audience in China.

It included photos of Ms. Peng signing giant tennis balls for fans at a youth tennis tournament. An article on the verified account of the China Open, a professional tennis tournament in Beijing, has been shared nearly a thousand times and has drawn the attention of exasperated commentators.

“This is the most reposted youth tournament event post I have ever seen in my career,” Zhang Bendou, a veteran tennis expert in China, wrote on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. Others made more mocking remarks. “Almost everyone asks ‘where is **’? One person wrote, leaving Ms. Peng’s name out of the commentary. “She introduced herself.”

For Lucy Wang, a dentist and tennis fan in Beijing who watched one of Ms Peng’s singles matches at the 2017 China Open in person, the photos were enough to reassure her. “Knowing that she is back is enough for me,” said Ms. Wang, 37. “I don’t know why people outside of China are still not happy.

The International Olympic Committee then released a statement and a photo of Ms. Peng smiling during a live video call with the president of the organization. China, which is due to host the Winter Olympics in February, took the opportunity to complain that most Western media and sports organizations had been biased and dishonest about the matter.

On Thursday, the IOC released another statement, saying members of the organization held a second video conference with Ms. Peng this week, but gave no details of the conversation. He said he was using “quiet diplomacy” with Chinese sports organizations to sort out the problem.

Steve Simon, the general manager of the WTA Tour, has been one of the Chinese authorities’ most vocal critics, demanding an investigation into the #MeToo allegations. News of the WTA Tour suspension circulated briefly on the Chinese internet Thursday morning.

Some Weibo users expressed support for the move before their comments were removed. “This time I’m with the WTA,” wrote one. Another was puzzled that Mr. Zhang had not yet been detained. “He really has very strong support,” the post said. “Ridiculous.”

While these anonymous online commentators have tried to use the internet to fend off censors, the gravity of the allegations has made many in China hesitate to speak about Ms. Peng in public.

Ashley Tian only learned of Ms Peng’s accusation on November 3, the day after it was published. At this point, “the online discussions were as clear as a blank sheet of paper,” she said. Ms. Tian, ​​a former sports reporter in Shanghai, heard about it from a former colleague, who explained the details in a voicemail.

At dinner that evening, Ms. Tian shared the message with friends, who leaned in closely for the discussion. “Should we talk about it here?” Ms. Tian recalled a friend who asked nervously. They changed the subject.

“People don’t even dare discuss it in public,” she said. “I guess what Peng really went through would remain a mystery forever.”

As a big fan who saw Ms. Peng play tennis at tournaments in Zhuhai and Shenzhen, Mr. Chen said his experience of trying to find out what happened to him that night was both frustrating and frustrating. revealing. “I was shocked and unaware of how quickly these things are moving,” he said.

Mr Chen is still confused by the whole experience and said he was disappointed with the WTA Tour announcement on Wednesday, saying he preferred to watch female tennis players because he believes women have more diverse skills on. the land than men.

He said he particularly enjoyed watching Ms. Peng’s powerful services, but wondered if his allegations would be investigated in China. “We know that stuff happens and we care,” he said. “But most of us choose to remain silent.”

He added, “This is the reality in China.


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