On Wednesday, as the Women's Tennis Association moved to suspend its tournaments in China, and as the world continued to worry about the freedom of Peng Shuai, the International Olympic Committee held a second video call with the Chinese tennis star, which the IOC said "reconfirmed" that Peng was "safe and well."
The IOC did not say who was on the call, or how it was organized. It did not mention Peng's allegations that a high-ranking Chinese politician had coerced her into sex. For these reasons and others, human rights experts have criticized the IOC for being "complicit" in China's silencing of Peng, as an "active" and "harmful" amplifier of Chinese propaganda.
On Thursday, Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, said this second call "deepens all of the concerns" and makes the IOC's complicity "worse."
Peng, 35, levied the sexual assault allegations in a Nov. 2 social media post. Chinese authorities swiftly scrubbed any mention of them from the country's highly censored cyberspace. Peng then disappeared from public life, only to reappear in seemingly staged videos and then, days later, on a call with IOC president Thomas Bach.
That Nov. 21 call represented Peng's first verified contact with the Western world since her disappearance. The IOC, in releasing sparse details, and one photo but no video, said, "Peng explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing," and that she "would like to have her privacy respected at this time."
Experts, citing precedent and the opaqueness of circumstances, said the call proved only that Peng was alive, and not that she was safe or free. Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, told Yahoo Sports that the call appeared “highly orchestrated” and “staged.” In fact, it fell in line with a pattern: The Chinese government, Wang and others said, has a long history of silencing high-profile dissenters and “erasing inconvenient truths,” then forcing the oppressed to appear on video to recant allegations, admit to crimes or tell the public that he or she is safe and well.
"Given the context,” Wang said of the first IOC call, “it's highly unlikely this is done out of Peng Shuai's free will."
Richardson accused the IOC and Chinese government of “collaborat[ing] to make a difficult, unpleasant story go away."
The call also did not satisfy the WTA. Steve Simon, its chairman, had been attempting to contact Peng for weeks. A WTA spokeswoman said via email that Simon sent Peng two emails, "to which it was clear her responses were influenced by others." Simon remained "deeply concerned that Peng is not free from censorship or coercion and decided not to re-engage via email until he was satisfied her responses were her own, and not those of her censors," the spokeswoman said.
On Wednesday, Simon reiterated “serious doubts that [Peng] is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation," and pulled WTA events out of China.
An IOC spokesperson did not respond to questions about the WTA's decision and concerns, and previously declined to address criticism of the IOC's approach or provide more details about the first call. Instead, early Thursday, the IOC released a statement about the second call with Peng.
"We share the same concern as many other people and organizations about the well-being and safety of Peng Shuai," the IOC said. "This is why, just yesterday, an IOC team held another video call with her. We have offered her wide-ranging support, will stay in regular touch with her, and have already agreed on a personal meeting in January.
"There are different ways to achieve her well-being and safety," the IOC statement continued. "We have taken a very human and person-centered approach to her situation. Since she is a three-time Olympian, the IOC is addressing these concerns directly with Chinese sports organizations. We are using 'quiet diplomacy' which, given the circumstances and based on the experience of governments and other organizations, is indicated to be the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters."
Richardson, upon reading the statement, noted the IOC's "person-centered approached" language, and noted, almost incredulously: "Um, you know who else uses that phrase? [Chinese president] Xi Jinping."
Human rights experts have ridiculed the "quiet diplomacy" strategy. They urged the IOC to retract its earlier statement, apologize, and explain the circumstances of the call — including the presence of a Chinese official on it.
Various experts, athlete advocates and sports organizations have also urged the IOC to support a transparent investigation into Peng’s claims — or at least address them.
Until it does, advocacy group Global Athlete said in a statement last month, the “IOC’s actions ... demonstrate that the organization fails athletes, aligns with abusive authoritarian regimes, and disregards human rights.”
They also “send a message,” Richardson said, “not just to Peng Shuai, but to other women across China struggling to get credible allegations of sexual assault or sexual harassment or sexual violence heard and investigated and prosecuted.
“The message they take is not only that organizations like the IOC won't help them, or can't help them; they're going to help their abusers.”