The Republic of China has always been known for its censorship, both cultural and political. Global platforms such as Google and Twitter are banned, and the mention of independence movements in Taiwan and Tibet are forbidden. World leaders have not been able to persuade the Chinese government to remove this censorship. The global population had no clue about it, or if they did, they chose to ignore it. But all this changed recently with the disappearance of the tennis star Peng Shuai. The notoriety of Shuai in the popular sport of tennis has meant most people have knowledge of her. The fact that she went missing almost immediately after accusing a senior Chinese figure of sexual assault has made the case even more well known. The Chinese government has released videos of her talking and smiling. But the question remains – is she being censored or coerced?


Peng Shuai is viewed as a renowned tennis player. She was No. 14 of the singles ranking in 2011 and was ranked No. 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in 2014. This has made her known both in the world of tennis and the country of China. She has been mostly quiet about her personal life, but in November 2021 she openly accused the former vice premier, Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her. Not only had she given a taste of her life in China, but she accused a top Chinese official of one of the most serious crimes in today’s world. Most had applauded her bravery of speaking out about a largely censored country, but at what cost has she done so? Peng Shuai revealed her accusation on 2 November 2021 and then fell silent.  No one has seen her since. She stopped posting on social media and deleted earlier posts. Clearly, it was no coincidence that she went missing just a few days after her accusations.


Soon countries began to take notice. Then the UN and other global organizations. Clearly, this had become a global matter. Knowledge of China’s brutal punishments caused led to many fearing for her life. The UN and other governments implored the Chinese government to show proof of life, but the Chinese government refused. Only after constant international pressure was the Chinese willing to concede. They released an email that Peng Shuai had apparently written to her tennis coach. That didn’t work – most governments believed that the email was faked by the government. The Chinese were forced to go a step further. They released a video of Shuai eating dinner with a group of people, but her forced smile led many to believe that she had been coerced. Clearly, this wasn’t enough. On 27 November 2021, Shuai was finally allowed to talk to the Chairman of the IOC via video call for 30 minutes. Surrounded by stuffed animals, she said that she was just spending time with her family. While these three instances show that Peng Shuai is alive and not incarcerated, it does not mean she hasn’t been censored by the Chinese government and is allowed to speak freely.


There are three main reasons why the three instances of Peng Shuai on camera should be taken with a pinch of salt. First is the email that was addressed to her tennis coach. Instead of starting the email with a greeting to the coach, she started with ‘Hello everyone'. This immediately raised suspicions. Although the email talked about tennis, it was clear from the greeting that the Chinese wanted the whole world to see it. The email also had a typing cursor in the corner – suggesting that the email had been screenshotted before being sent from her email address. Then comes the video of Shuai eating dinner with friends. Not only does it seem like she is forcing a smile, but the person behind the camera says that he has started filming at the beginning of the video. The most logical explanation is that this was a setup – the video was planned so it could be sent to the international world. Most importantly, all three proofs of life – the email, the video, and the picture of Shuai talking to the IOC were released by China, meaning they had control over what the world could see and hear.


Peng Shuai may be alive, but she is not free. The Chinese government has prevented her from using social media and has probably coerced her into talking with the IOC and telling her to pretend that everything was ok. But it’s clearly s not. No matter how much she says she wants to spend time with her family, if she had freedom of speech, she could have let the world know she was alive sooner, especially when the UN became involved. But she didn’t.


A few days after she went public with the accusations, Shuai retracted her statement and said she was wrong. But why would she have released a false accusation when she knew how censored China was? She knew her accusations would have serious consequences so there is no way she would have fabricated such statements. Especially when such a high-level official was involved. Chinese officials often seem untouchable and in the eyes of the Chinese population, they can do no wrong. These accusations have changed this. This case has revealed that not government officials are abusing their power, but they are willing to discredit and intimidate anyone that speaks the truth.


In a world where freedom of speech and movement are key human rights, censorship in China has become a more serious and apparent issue. It does not help that China is a highly developed country that has a stable government (i.e., no wars or government coups) – meaning that the government is able to grant these rights but refuses to do so.


Most governments focus on trade and economic treaties when it comes to China. They don’t care about Chinese citizens or the censorship they face. Until now. The story of Peng Shuai has revealed the extent of Chinese censorship to the world – and governments are forced to act against China after the outrage shown by their citizens. Not only are international governments forced to pressure China to restore freedom of speech for Peng Shuai, but there are calls by citizens for governments to push China to grant these basic human rights to the entire Chinese population.


Even if Peng Shuai is found to have freedom of speech and movement, there are still thousands of Peng Shuai’s in China.  Thousands remain prisoners in their country with no freedom of speech or movement. The world needs to act just as they have done in the case of Peng Shuai. We cannot, and must not, forget about them.