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Peng Shuai of China returns a shot during the second round of the U.S. Open tennis championships in 2019.Michael Owens/The Associated Press

On Thursday, Hu Xijin, the editor of the Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times, tweeted his skepticism of foreign reports about Peng Shuai, the tennis star who has been incommunicado since accusing a former top official of sexual assault.

“As a person who is familiar with Chinese system,” Mr. Hu wrote, “I don’t believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for the thing people talked about.”

Commentators immediately seized upon the “he who must not be named” language in Mr. Hu’s tweet and the fact that his newspaper, which usually has an opinion on everything, has not written about Ms. Peng since 2018. Like the rest of Chinese media, Global Times has not covered the accusations against former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli at all.

Inside the Great Firewall, China’s vast surveillance and censorship apparatus, Ms. Peng has not just disappeared, she has become a non-person. All mention of her is subject to intense censorship, and even posts about other tennis players, many of whom have spoken out in support of Ms. Peng in recent days, are being policed, with commenting and sharing tightly limited.

Writing about Ms. Peng’s accusations earlier this month, feminist activist Lü Pin said the intense censorship “reveals the fear of China’s top leaders,” who worry they might be subjected to public scrutiny and criticism for their actions.

But China’s censors cannot control the narrative outside the Great Firewall, however, and must hand over such duties to the country’s propaganda apparatus. It’s fair to say the propagandists have dropped the ball this time, making the situation worse and tying the government’s hands to a certain extent. Officials have been unable to respond as forcefully as they have to other scandals, because doing so would acknowledge that there is a scandal in the first place.

The Peng Shuai case is not going away. In an interview with CNN Thursday, Steve Simon, head of the Women’s Tennis Association, said his organization was prepared to pull out of China, forgoing hundreds of millions of dollars in deals, if Ms. Peng does not resurface soon. Mr. Simon had already spoken out about her case but appears to have been further incensed by a letter released by state broadcaster CGTN, purporting to be from Ms. Peng, that claimed she was fine and that no sexual assault had taken place.

“When I saw it come out on Chinese state media, it became very clear to us that this was a staged statement of some type, whether coerced into writing it or someone wrote it for her,” he said.

Instead of suppressing the scandal, CGTN only succeeded in raising its profile.

Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet’s office, called for proof of Ms. Peng’s whereabouts and well-being, as well as a transparent investigation into her allegations.

Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the CGTN letter “obviously convinces no one.

“They don’t even try, because the purpose is not to convince,” she wrote on Twitter. “The brazenness, the daring is the point.”

In the past, such a bald-faced response might have been sufficient to silence criticism from anyone invested in China. Indeed, much of the media coverage of the scandal has been focused on Mr. Simon and the WTA’s refusal to be cowed by the idea of losing market share in China, something that has worked to muzzle many other organizations.

“The Chinese authorities and their propaganda apparatus did not expect to face a community with many voices that carry a long way,” said Benjamin Ismail, a Paris-based project director at Apple Censorship, which focuses on internet freedom in China.

“The other truly unprecedented element is the stance of the WTA,” he told The Globe and Mail. “We are watching closely how the situation unfolds, as this is an example of how businesses should react when facing the choice of remaining silent to carry out their activities in China or to speak up for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

A more typical response was on display Thursday from the International Olympic Committee. Asked about Ms. Peng, a former Olympian, the IOC said in a statement: “We have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe.”

The IOC is already under intense pressure over the 2022 Winter Games, which are to be held in Beijing in February, despite widespread concerns about human-rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong and calls for a boycott. Ahead of the 2008 Games, the first time China hosted the Olympics, the IOC openly spoke of the potential for the event to spur reforms and boasted of promises from Beijing regarding press freedom and protests.

In the end, both amounted to very little, and what new freedoms were granted ahead of the Games were quickly rolled back. This time, the IOC has insisted the Olympics are completely apolitical and joined Beijing in angrily rebutting any calls for a boycott.

But Ms. Peng’s case could complicate such efforts. While tennis has nothing to do with the Winter Olympics, Ms. Peng has quickly become a symbol of Beijing’s heavy-handed policies, one that has been readily adopted by celebrity sportspeople and other prominent figures who would be unlikely to comment on Tibet or Xinjiang.

U.S. President Joe Biden is reportedly considering a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics, despite improvements in Washington’s relationship with Beijing after a virtual summit between Mr. Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping this week. Were the U.S. not to send officials to the Games, it could give cover to other Western countries, including Canada, to do the same.

In a letter to Mr. Biden this week, Republican lawmaker Jim Banks voiced concern for Ms. Peng and urged the President “to warn the Chinese authorities that China’s silencing and abusing Peng Shuai, if not handled properly, will have a negative impact on China hosting the Winter Olympics of 2022.”

Asked about a potential boycott, Zhao Lijian, a Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman, said Friday that “politicizing sports goes against the Olympic spirit and damages the interests of athletes from all countries.”

Hours later, the German Olympic Sports Confederation tweeted it was “concerned about the events surrounding Olympic athlete Peng Shuai” and was closely following the situation.

It then added the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.

With reports from The Associated Press and Reuters

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