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Novak Djokovic’s fight has shifted the spotlight from Peng Shuai… will we ever find out the truth?

Last weekend, when Novak Djokovic was plotting an escape route from his Melbourne ‘prison’ to Rod Laver Arena, a cartoon appeared on social media. It depicted another tennis star locked in her cell where, from the TV, a message was blaring: ‘Strong mobilization around Novak Djokovic, stranded in a hotel.’

In the days that followed, his battle to play at the Australian Open entranced the world.

All the while, Peng Shuai remained locked in the shadows. She will also not be competing in Melbourne.

Mystery remains over former Grand Slam champion Peng Shuai 's whereabouts

Mystery remains over former Grand Slam champion Peng Shuai ‘s whereabouts

Last weekend marked 67 days since the Chinese player accused Zhang Gaoli, the country’s former deputy prime minister, of sexual assault. In that time, Peng has all but disappeared – only seen and heard through a few staged public appearances.

Last weekend it also happened to be her 36th birthday. And yet, as tennis descends Down Under for its first major of 2022, the spotlight has shifted elsewhere. Just as Beijing wanted.

So what now for Peng? After a wave of shame and condemnation, has China managed to silence the former Grand Slam champion? And will we ever know what fate really befell her?

Earlier this month, Alize Cornet raised lingering questions again.

“I’m still a little worried about (Peng),” the French player said. “I don’t know where the truth is and where the lies are.”

Cornet was one of the first to seek answers using the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.

Soon Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and the entire sports world were asking the same thing.

The Chinese star has only been seen and heard through a few staged public appearances

The Chinese star has only been seen and heard through a few staged public appearances

The Chinese star has only been seen and heard through a few staged public appearances

Soon, the WTA made the extraordinary decision to boycott China until there was clarity.

And yet, as Cornet admitted recently, “I’m not sure it’s (changed) anything.”

Instead, a mystery about Peng’s plight remains. What we do know is that on Nov. 2, the three-time Olympian posted a lengthy message to Weibo — a Chinese social media platform — accusing Gaoli of sexual assault. It was an incendiary claim made against a retired head of the ruling Communist Party by one of the country’s best-known sports stars.

Within half an hour, however, it was removed and the state went on the offensive.

Powerless to prevent the mail from being leaked to the world, China tried to shut it down at home. Their plan worked.

“The average Chinese knows absolutely nothing about it,” explains Mark Dreyer, the Beijing-based founder of China Sports Insider. “It was generally scrubbed all over.” On social networks and between traditional media.

“As soon as something gets sensitive, the media knows they’re going to get in trouble if they talk about it. So they just don’t.’

It is possible to climb ‘over the wall’ of oppression, says Dr Susan Brownell, an internationally recognized expert on Chinese sports.

But unfiltered access to foreign media requires work and know-how.

So most people’s lens to the outside world is broken by algorithms, artificial intelligence and manpower. “The censorship is incredibly effective,” Dreyer says.

According to an analysis by the New York Times and ProPublica, the Chinese state has delved into a “tested playbook” to erase this scandal from national conversation. Tactics tightened during other storms, such as the early days of the coronavirus.

Posts referring to Peng’s claims have been removed; discussions on topics like “tennis” were narrowed; hundreds of keywords were banned.

Peng accused Zhang Gaoli - the country's former deputy prime minister - of sexual assault in November

Peng accused Zhang Gaoli - the country's former deputy prime minister - of sexual assault in November

Peng accused Zhang Gaoli – the country’s former deputy prime minister – of sexual assault in November

Some suppression tools are believed to fool users by showing them messages, without being aware that they are hidden from everyone. “Don’t underestimate how efficient and widespread the censorship is,” adds Dreyer.

For a while, Peng himself also disappeared from the public eye.

But as China made efforts to put out fires at home, outside concerns became too great to ignore. In the end it became clear that this would not blow over. For once, a sporty body would not be afraid; even the UN demanded proof of her whereabouts. And so China’s international PR machine sprang into action.

In November, a spokesman for the State Department complained of “malicious hype” and the “politicization” of the issue.

State media stooges and fake Twitter accounts hit back at criticism. Twitter allegedly deleted 97 suspicious profiles.

After nearly three weeks, Peng reappeared. Since then, several more pompous public appearances have come.

She held a video call with IOC President Thomas Bach; she recanted her allegations to the Singaporean media.

Novak Djokovic's battle to play at the Australian Open has shifted the spotlight from Peng

Novak Djokovic's battle to play at the Australian Open has shifted the spotlight from Peng

Djokovic was deported from Australia after losing a final court attempt to stay in the country

China will often lean on foreign friends in search of legitimacy.

But each new attempt to suggest that all is well has been less convincing than the last. Most only served to increase scrutiny and skepticism abroad.

Certainly, no one shed any light on what had become of Peng. Except perhaps to suggest she wasn’t under lock and key.

“What she said… who she was talking about, it’s going to be seen as incredibly sensitive — she’s going to be under a lot of pressure not to say that again,” Dreyer says.

“I think the implication would be clear — if she’s out of line, she’s going to be in trouble.”

There are enough examples of high-profile people arrested in China never to be heard from again; the primary focus of the state is usually to manage the situation at home.

Peng’s international profile—and the worldwide attention her story received—changed the stakes. This includes the Winter Olympics, which start next month in Beijing.

That explains China’s clumsy PR urge to reassure the outside world. And while Peng’s public appearances have often revived this story, at least they have allayed most of her safety concerns.

Djokovic was deported from Australia after losing a final court attempt to stay in the country

Djokovic was deported from Australia after losing a final court attempt to stay in the country

Djokovic was deported from Australia after losing a final court attempt to stay in the country

“It doesn’t answer all the questions. But the first (one) was #WhereIsPengShuai,” Dreyer notes. “#HowExactlyFreeIsPengShuai isn’t that catchy.”

It is also more difficult to answer. Who knows for sure what pressure is being exerted, what checks and threats Peng has undergone?

WTA chief Steve Simon has “serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation.”

They still want a “full and transparent investigation” into Peng’s allegations.

But as China remains steadfast, the circus surrounding Djokovic suggests they may have been wheeled out of the tumultuous waters. Even if lone voices keep the issue alive.

“I think it will be very difficult for her to find the real truth and for her to speak freely,” World No. 3 Garbine Muguruza said this week.

‘It’s not getting any better, I feel. It’s just been there for months and months.’

Will that impasse ever be broken?

Djokovic will not be able to compete for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title this month

Djokovic will not be able to compete for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title this month

Djokovic will not be able to compete for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title this month

“I don’t think people ever really understand this,” said Dreyer, author of Sporting Superpower. “I don’t see her playing internationally anymore… she doesn’t go abroad to play tournaments.”

Ultimately, he thinks, people will just move on. Recent events suggest that many have already done so.

That could be costly to the WTA, for whom China had become an important market.

In normal times, a stalemate would not necessarily fit Beijing either. Sport can be a useful economic and political tool.

“Tennis actually has an interesting status in China,” Brownell says. “It was seen as an elite, Western sport that powerful, wealthy people played.”

That brought symbolism to China. But for now, the country seems content without it.

“The WTA has (said), we need answers to these questions… well, they won’t be,” Dreyer says.

Not when sports in China have been sidelined by coronavirus concerns — no one will notice the boycott for another year or so.

Who knows what has become of Peng by then?

Who knows what else could make the world look the other way?

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