What began as a confrontation between feminism and authoritarianism within China has evolved into a wider sports and human rights showdown as the tennis world takes a stand for Peng Shuai, a Chinese player who accused a Communist Party leader of sexual abuse and has since vanished from public view.
It is a case that touches on the most sensitive topic in China: abuse of power by Communist Party leaders. It also comes as Beijing prepares to host the Winter Olympics in February amid international calls for a boycott over China’s human rights violations.
Peng, 35 — a former world No. 1 player in doubles, with Wimbledon and French Open titles to her credit — accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, 75, of pressuring her into sex 10 years ago when he was the party chief of Tianjin, a port city near Beijing, and then again three years ago after he had retired. Zhang forced himself on her on that occasion in his bedroom while his wife stood guard outside, Peng wrote in a Weibo post Nov. 2 that was deleted by censors within half an hour.
“I did not consent at first. … I cried the whole time. … I said yes because I was scared,” Peng wrote. She had no proof of Zhang’s assault, because his power was overwhelming — “the world is a plaything to you,” she said — and he had prevented her from ever recording anything. But she wanted to speak.
“I have no recordings, no videos, only the true experience of my twisted self. I know that you, high and mighty Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, have said you’re not afraid,” she said. “But even if I am like an egg cracking against a rock or a moth destroying itself in the flame, I will speak the truth about you.”
Since then, Peng had not been heard from in public — until Thursday morning, when Chinese state channel CGTN tweeted a screenshot of what it said was an email by her. “Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai,” it said. “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.”
The sexual assault allegations against Zhang were “not true,” and any further news about Peng should be released only with her consent, it added.
CGTN claimed the image was of an email sent by Peng to Women’s Tennis Assn. Chairman and CEO Steve Simon. It did not explain why state media would have such a screenshot or why a mouse cursor remained visible in the text. It also did not post the screenshot on the Chinese internet, where Peng and all posts surrounding her allegation have been erased, and where Twitter itself remains banned.
The purported email came after the WTA issued a statement supporting Peng earlier this week, raising the pressure on Chinese authorities.
“Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored,” the WTA said. “In all societies, the behavior she alleges that took place needs to be investigated, not condoned or ignored. We commend Peng Shuai for her remarkable courage and strength in coming forward.”
Simon told the New York Times earlier this week that the WTA would be prepared to pull out of China — where it has 11 tournaments and a decade-long deal to hold its tour finals in the southern city of Shenzhen — if it did not see an appropriate investigation.
He said he had received confirmation from the Chinese Tennis Assn. that Peng was safe and not under physical threat, but was unable to reach her directly to confirm that.
“The WTA issue is about potential sexual assault of one of our players. That is something that simply can’t be compromised,” he said.
Tennis star Naomi Osaka tweeted Wednesday: “Censorship is never ok at any cost, I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and ok. I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way. #whereispengshuai”
Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai stretches for a forehand at the 2020 Australian Open.
(Andy Brownbill / Associated Press)
After Osaka’s tweet, comments on Weibo thanking her for speaking out about Peng were erased as well.
“I don’t know what to say besides praying she’ll be safe,” said one comment on Weibo that was quickly deleted. “We’ve already accepted that this incident will disappear online. The posts will disappear, the accounts will disappear, justice disappears, law disappears, only the victim and the pain that tortures her will not disappear. Only the the next victim’s fear will not disappear.”
Instead of reassuring those worried about her, the CGTN tweet has only heightened concerns over Peng’s safety.
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” Simon said in a new statement Thursday, adding that he was still unable to reach Peng. The WTA demanded “independent and verifiable proof” of her safety and a transparent investigation into her assault allegation, he said.
China has often used access to its lucrative market as a bargaining chip to censor industries seeking access to China, including professional sports. Most recently, in 2019, the NBA suffered a nationalist backlash and boycott in China after Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.
The NBA then distanced itself from Morey’s comments, issuing an apologetic statement on Weibo about the “inappropriate” remark that “severely hurt the feelings of Chinese fans.” Morey deleted his tweet.
Many leaders in sports as well as Hollywood, fashion and other cultural sectors have sought to stay in China’s good graces by keeping quiet on sensitive issues.
In a rare break with that silence, women’s tennis is doing the opposite: pressuring China to prove the safety and freedom of a Chinese player who has crossed a political red line, even if it loses the Chinese market as a result.
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Lü Pin, a well-known Chinese feminist activist who now lives in the United States, said the CGTN email showed that international attention had put “immense pressure” on the Chinese government.
“The question is what else can be done now to make progress on saving Peng Shuai,” she said. If attention moved away from Peng, she would be left in “darkness,” Lü said, “which is what the Chinese government wants to see.”
Peng’s case illustrated both the strength of the #MeToo and feminist movements in China and the growing danger they face, Lü said. Many of China’s feminist and LGBTQ groups have had their social media accounts erased this year. Some Chinese feminists have also been detained.
Huang Xueqin, an independent journalist who reported on some of China’s first #MeToo cases, was detained on her way to the airport in Guangzhou last month. She has been charged with “inciting subversion of state power.”
Last year, China’s top-scoring soccer player, Hao Haidong, was purged from the Chinese internet along with his wife, Ye Zhaoying, a former badminton champion, after the two publicly denounced the Communist Party. But they had left the country and moved to Spain before speaking.
Peng’s post, while far less political and more focused on personal assault, was published while she was still in the country.
That places her in immense danger, said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. The Chinese government has a history of “disappearing” critics and extracting forced confessions from them, she said.
In 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers who’d sold books including gossip about Communist Party leaders disappeared into secret detention in China. At least one sent a letter to his family while detained, stating that he had gone to mainland China voluntarily. “My situation right now is very good, everything is fine,” he wrote.
Peng’s case showed that “athletes, no matter how prominent, are just like anyone else in the country: at the whims of the Chinese government’s unaccountable power,” Wang said. “No one is safe.”
Why Mexico’s President Is Promoting a Recall Against Himself
MEXICO CITY —
Standing before hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters in downtown Mexico City’s central square, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saved his most striking comment for the end of his speech.
He urged the Mexicans packed into the Zócalo to participate in an April referendum to decide whether they want to boot him from office more than two years early.
“None of, ‘They chose me for six years and I can do whatever I want,’” López Obrador said at the rally Wednesday to mark his midterm. “If one who governs is not up to the task and obeying the people, revoke their mandate and out!”
The president, 68, likely believes he has nothing to worry about.
Recent polls show that about two-thirds of the public approve of his performance since taking office in 2018 on a platform that promised a radical transformation of Mexican society to combat corruption and inequality and to roll back free-market economic policies.
Families and marching bands making their way to the Zócalo passed vendors hawking gray-haired López Obrador dolls and posters with the hashtag #QueSigaAMLO, or “may AMLO continue,” referring to the president by his initials. Many said they view a referendum, authorized by a 2019 constitutional reform spearheaded by the president, as proof of his honest character when compared to decades of presidents accused of corruption.
“AMLO is the first president that dares to put himself to the test before the people,” said Debanhi Andrea Garcia, 22, who drove 14 hours from the state of Nuevo León with her boyfriend. “Because he’s like that, we support him.”
Supporters of López Obrador hold banners in support of the president at Mexico City’s Zócalo.
(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)
Mexicans have until Dec. 25 to sign a petition supporting the referendum, which can move forward only with the signatures of at least 3% of eligible voters, among other caveats.
So far, the initiative has received more than 703,000 signatures from Mexicans who have valid voting credentials, or 25% of the required total, according to the National Electoral Institute, an independent agency overseeing the process. (That tally includes signatures that will be discarded because they are duplicates or have other irregularities.)
Officially called the “revocation of mandate,” the measure follows other efforts by the president to increase citizen engagement in public policy. López Obrador has also backed referendums to decide whether former Mexican presidents should be prosecuted for alleged crimes, on the construction of a new airport near Mexico City and on the development of a tourism train line that would run through the Yucatan Peninsula.
“He does conceive his power as being a function of people reiterating their support actively,” said Francisco González, a professor of Latin American politics at Johns Hopkins University. “He wants it officially confirmed to give him that comfort of being the popular leader who is doing the right thing for Mexico.”
Since taking office, López Obrador has also expanded social welfare programs while introducing sharp austerity measures. He has halted renewable energy projects, promoted a constitutional reform to increase the country’s control of the electricity market, and given more power to the military — putting it in charge of projects such as the tourism train.
President López Obrador gives an address to mark the midpoint of his term.
(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)
His critics say that he hasn’t done enough to reduce high levels of homicides, including many killings of women and attacks against journalists and public officials. Dozens of candidates across the country were assassinated ahead of last spring’s midterm elections for governorships and legislative and mayoral seats.
Critics also are concerned about López Obrador’s attacks against democratic agencies that could check his power, notably the National Electoral Institute. He has repeatedly disparaged the independent agency, which last May sanctioned him for making statements in at least 29 news conferences that it said could be considered government propaganda that could influence the midterm elections. In Mexico, such statements by public officials are generally barred during the election season.
But the president’s vision of transformational change continues to resonate among many voters who view him as a paternal figure. López Obrador is in constant dialogue with his electorate, holding press conferences every morning that last hours.
“The figure he has constructed of an honest man, an honorable man, an incorruptible man — that helps him in a society that is used to seeing terribly corrupt politicians,” said René Torres-Ruiz, a political scientist at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.
Even if enough signatures are gathered, hurdles to a referendum remain. The National Electoral Institute’s members have said that the agency doesn’t have the budget to carry out the vote and at least 40% of eligible voters must participate for the referendum to be binding. The referendum on former presidents last August fell far short of the 40% voting figure.
Ariadna Gomez, left, and another volunteer collect signatures for a referendum on whether Mexico’s president should continue.
(Leila Miller / Los Angeles Times)
Stephanie Brewer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America, said that winning a referendum would increase López Obrador’s perception that he could move forward freely with his agenda.
“What he wants is to come out of the vote, supposing there is one, politically strengthened with this renewed and amplified popular mandate,” she said.
Opposition parties have accused the president’s supporters of twisting the stated purpose of the referendum into a tool to promote López Obrador’s agenda. The 2019 reform called for a referendum to “revoke” a president’s mandate rather than “ratify” it and a complaint before the National Electoral Institute by the National Action Party referenced how volunteers have registered voters next to posters that advertise the referendum as a means of promoting the president rather than recalling him from office.
Luis Cházaro, a congressman from the Party of the Democratic Revolution, told The Times that the referendum “has been transformed into a promotional tool for the party.” He does not plan to participate.
In Coyoacán, a cobblestoned neighborhood in Mexico City known for Frida Kahlo’s home, volunteers last Sunday gathered signatures at a plaza in front of posters of the president that said “may AMLO continue.”
Ariana Garcia, a 24-year-old volunteer, said she uses the term “ratification” for people she senses like the president and “revocation” for those she thinks oppose him.
“People tell you, ‘But I don’t want my president to leave,’ so we tell them, ‘OK, then in this case you can ratify your support for the president,’” she said.
A supporter of López Obrador listens to his speech at a rally to commemorate the president’s midterm.
(Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)
Roberto Garcia, a systems engineer in Mexico City, said that he would vote against the president, uncomfortable that the federal government recently issued a decree that requires federal agencies to automatically approve infrastructure projects that are deemed to be of interest to the public or national security. He also sees the referendum as “a type of manipulation,” suspicious of why the president has contradicted the National Electoral Institute, saying it has enough funding to hold a vote he himself has fought for.
María de los Angeles Resendiz, a grandmother of 10 from the state of Mexico, will support López Obrador without hesitation.
Resendiz, 62, watches the president’s 7 a.m. news conferences each day with her husband while preparing breakfast and washing dishes. If she needs to skip one, she’ll track it down later on YouTube. She also listens to summaries in case she’s missed something.
Before López Obrador took power, Resendiz tried to stay as far away from politics as she could. She became disillusioned when she was a little girl after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which soldiers killed as many as 300 people at a student protest in Mexico City.
She called López Obrador a “simple” man who has won her confidence with his anti-corruption platform. She eagerly described how his government has set money aside for youth job training and expanded welfare payments to the elderly.
“He’s given us back our dignity,” she said. “I am proud to say that I am Mexican and that he is my president.”
Original Post: latimes.com
Op-Ed: the U.S. Shouldn’t Ignore Mexico’s Ongoing Human Rights Catastrophe
On Dec. 1, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reached the halfway point of his six-year term. Since his election in 2018, López Obrador has not only failed to improve the country’s disastrous human rights record, he has worked to undo many of the hard-fought gains in transparency and the rule of law that rights groups, activists and campaigners have achieved since the end of one-party rule in Mexico in 2000.
The United States has been noticeably silent regarding the Mexican president’s accelerating attacks on democracy. President Biden has instead chosen to focus on enlisting López Obrador to prevent migrants from reaching the U.S. border.
López Obrador, a prominent anti-establishment figure in Mexican politics for decades, is the kind of populist leader that has become increasingly common in Latin America. He was democratically elected in a landslide on a promise to “transform” Mexico by taking back control of the country from the elites whose policies he blamed for economic inequality, social breakdown and growing violence.
López Obrador inherited a human rights catastrophe. When he came to office in 2018, 12 years of a military-led drug war had led to horrific abuses. Homicides hit staggering numbers. Thousands of people disappeared every year. But he has not addressed these problems. Soldiers continue to kill civilians. Homicides remain at historically high rates. And according to the government’s figures, more than 25,000 people have gone missing on his watch.
Even so, López Obrador has remained immensely popular with his base. He appears to believe that his continued popular support gives him the moral authority to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands and to attempt to control every part of the state to bring about his promised transformation.
He labels anyone who criticizes him or stands in his way as a “neoliberal” or “conservative,” nebulous groups of supposed adversaries whom he describes as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Leveling this charge allows him to avoid responding to genuine concerns raised by journalists who question him, women’s rights campaigners upset at his lack of action on gender-based violence, Indigenous communities who oppose his megaprojects, environmentalists who disagree with his coal and oil-focused energy policy, and press freedom campaigners concerned about his government’s harassment of journalists, among others.
He has eliminated or proposed eliminating many government agencies not under his direct control, including the independent energy and telecommunications regulators, funds for protecting journalists and responding to climate change and natural disasters, the independent transparency agency and the independent electoral authority. He recently decreed that his government’s construction and infrastructure projects would be automatically granted permits without any review and that as matters of “national security,” would be exempted from transparency rules.
He has also gone after the judicial system, which has delayed or blocked a number of his projects and proposals as abusive or unconstitutional. His efforts to intimidate the judiciary have grown brazen. López Obrador has publicly singled out those whose rulings he dislikes and called for a judge who ruled against him to be investigated.
In April, his coalition in Congress passed a law — since overturned — to extend the term of the Supreme Court chief justice who has ruled in favor of the president. And in August, López Obrador held a referendum on whether the government should put five previous presidents on trial for alleged crimes such as “neoliberalism” and the “privatization of public goods.”
The U.S. policy of ignoring López Obrador’s attacks on the rule of law came into stark relief in June, when Vice President Kamala Harris visited Mexico and met with him. At the end of the trip, a journalist asked the vice president if the United States was concerned about López Obrador’s hostile attitude toward the media and civil society.
Harris initially responded that she had urged the Mexican president to respect the independence of the judicial system, the press and civil society. However, hours later, her spokesperson issued a correction to the Spanish wire service EFE, saying the vice president had been confused; she and the Mexican president had only discussed immigration and the economy, nothing else.
López Obrador will be in office for another three years. His coalition still controls both houses of Congress and he has made it clear that he is willing to amend the constitution if necessary to remove obstacles to achieving his goals. Unless the circumstances change, there are no signs he intends to alter his course.
José Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch. Tyler Mattiace is a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
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