With less than three months to go until the start of the Beijing Olympics, China seems determined to make everyone involved cross a moral Rubicon to get there.
The latest kerfuffle involves Chinese tennis pro Peng Shuai. A couple of weeks ago, Peng accused China’s former vice-premier – one of the half-dozen most powerful people in the country – of sexual assault.
The accusation was detailed and unambiguous. It was levelled via a verified social-media account. That account went dark almost immediately, and there were no follow-up comments. Everyone in tennis rushed in to support her. Pretty quickly, as will happen, the news shifted from what Peng said to what other famous people felt about what Peng said.
It wasn’t until a while later that anyone got around to wondering where Peng was. That’s when a curious e-mail was sent to the Women’s Tennis Association, purportedly from Peng.
“The news in [a WTA release sent in support of Peng], including the allegation of sex assault, is not true. I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.”
You heard her. She’s fine. She hasn’t vanished. She’s lying down at home. For two straight weeks. Without talking to anyone or sending any e-mails or texts. Total radio silence – just like most millennial pro athletes.
Once again, the collective sports world’s righteousness reflex took over. First things first – be visibly and very publicly outraged. Statement per WTA president Steve Simon: “The voices of women need to be heard and respected, not censored nor dictated to.”
Second thing – start a hashtag. #WhereIsPengShuai was trending midweek. Naomi Osaka’s concern over Peng’s whereabouts punted the story into its second news cycle. Now all her colleagues rushed to get in on her action, lest they seem less committed to the cause. Tweeting is the least they can do (quite literally).
Third thing – make threats. The WTA’s Simon told CNN on Thursday that he is willing to “pull our business” in China. Credit to him – that’s a stand the NBA couldn’t bring itself to take when it wandered into China’s crosshairs.
But we never seem to get to the fourth thing. That would be the nuclear option. Something along the lines of, “If they go ahead with the Olympics in Beijing, we are done with the Olympics.”
That won’t happen. Poor Peng will have to hope the Central Committee really hates trending on tennis Twitter.
Perhaps a combo of Peng’s fame and western outrage will inoculate her from real harm. But what is certain is that scores more in China – people who don’t play tennis for a living – did not, do not and will not get that same benefit.
Those people are just as real as Peng, and yet WTA, ATP and all sorts of other lucrative sporting events were taking place in China as they suffered. However the Peng affair ends, no one in tennis ought to be patting themselves on the back for being a shining light for human rights. No one gets to be a hero in this.
That’s the overarching problem here – we don’t connect to any story unless it has a clearly defined good guy and an equally obvious-to-spot bad guy. Where those two archetypes do not exist, we create them, often unfairly and according to the latest fashion.
The next Winter Olympics defies this axiom. It will be a big, popular showcase featuring a cast of grey people. Because everyone who takes part in it will be compromised in some way.
It’d be very easy for China to play nice in the international schoolyard for the next few weeks – but it won’t. It’s beginning to feel as though China creates dramas such as the Peng incident in order to remind the rest of us how impotent we are when what we believe conflicts with what we like.
We believe China is an authoritarian state that ought not to be valorized because it mistreats its own citizens. But we like the Olympics and the Olympics are in China. You see our problem, right?
On Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden said he is considering a modified boycott of the Beijing Games. How is it modified? You’ll love this – it’s modified so that it’s not actually a boycott, but they will still call it a boycott. Genius, right?
This would be a diplomatic boycott, meaning no American officials would attend.
All the Pyeongchang Winter Games got was vice-president Mike Pence and one of the Trump kids. But China? Nothing. Not even a lousy Secretary of something that isn’t State. If that won’t smarten Chinese President Xi Jinping up, then I don’t know what will.
Between the Uyghurs, the two Michaels, disappeared journalists, COVID-19 cover-ups and the threats on Taiwan, it’s beginning to seem as though China doesn’t care what we think of it. It’s almost as if it believes it can go and do whatever it likes and that there won’t be any consequences.
Maybe because there aren’t any.
If people cared – I mean, really cared – there wouldn’t be a Beijing Olympics. But they don’t care.
They care enough to say something, though that’s a different sort of caring. That’s caring about appearing to care. As long as that condition has been satisfied (#WhereIsPengShuai), people will do what they like. What they like is going to, competing in, making money from and watching the Olympics.
None of this is to suggest that Beijing 2022 should be boycotted. Maybe it ought not have been awarded to China in the first place, but that’s an argument best held in a time machine.
The Games encourages the world’s various warring interests to come together in friendly competition. At its best, it fosters understanding and promotes co-operation. Instead of war, do luge. On a geopolitical level, that interest supersedes all others.
But there is no pretending anyone is clean in all of this. You can either stand on your beliefs, or you can compromise them to get something you want – whether that’s world peace, the chance for a gold medal or the fun of watching Olympic hockey with your pals.
You can’t stand in the middle of that moral river. Sooner or later, everyone has to pick a side. By the time February rolls around, and despite all the garment rending still to come, the vast, vast majority of us will end up on the same side as China.