China must answer serious questions about tennis star Peng Shuai, Australia says
Chinese authorities must answer serious concerns about the tennis star Peng Shuai’s welfare, the Australian government has said.
The intervention comes as human rights activists and an independent senator step up calls for Australia to join a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics over broader allegations of rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Chinese state media have published photos and videos of Peng at a tennis tournament in Beijing and at a restaurant in an attempt to dampen global concerns about her wellbeing, following a nearly three-week public absence after she alleged that a former senior Chinese official sexually assaulted her.
The Australian government added its voice to those concerns while urging the Chinese government to be transparent and accountable.
“It is understandable that many people, including in the international sporting community, have raised serious concerns about Ms Peng’s welfare,” an Australian government spokesperson said late on Monday night. “This is a matter that needs to be responded to with transparency and accountability.”
The International Olympic Committee said its president had held a 30-minute video call with the former doubles world No 1 on Sunday, and quoted her as saying she was “safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time”.
But the Women’s Tennis Association said it remained worried about Peng’s “wellbeing and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion”.
Elaine Pearson, the Australia director of Human Rights Watch, said what was happening to Peng “would send a chill down the spine of anyone heading to Beijing for the Olympics”.
“For a long time, the IOC has been prepared to accept the Chinese government’s assurances at face value and tried to separate sport from politics,” Pearson said.
“Frankly, it is shameful to see the IOC participating in this Chinese government’s charade that everything is fine and normal for Peng Shuai. Clearly it is not, otherwise why would the Chinese government be censoring Peng Shuai from the internet in China and not letting her speak freely to media or the public?”
Pearson said Australia and other governments should consider a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics – to be hosted by China in February – because of the “incredibly repressive crackdown on human rights in China”.
She said China was “actively committing crimes against humanity against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang”. The Olympics, she said, “should not be used as a tool to legitimise a government committing crimes against humanity and other serious human rights abuses”.
Under the model being discussed in the US, athletes would be free to take part but they would not be accompanied by a political delegation of officials and politicians.
The idea of Australia joining a boycott has been raised from within Coalition ranks – but the government is believed to have conveyed the message it is watching what its allies are doing and would coordinate any action rather than taking unilateral steps.
The diplomatic relationship between Australia and China is strained. A full Australian boycott involving athletes is considered highly unlikely. Even if senior officials shunned the event, it is unclear if and when this would openly be announced.
When asked about a potential diplomatic boycott, the government spokesperson said: “A decision on commonwealth representation at the Beijing Winter Olympics is yet to be made.”
The South Australian senator Rex Patrick said Australia “should be working with our allies, especially the United States, to encourage the widest possible official boycott of the Beijing Winter Games”. He said Australian ministers and senior officials should not attend.
“Major corporate sponsors of the Olympics should also be considering their position, and whether they want to be supporting what will be a huge propaganda event for the CCP,” Patrick said.
China’s acting ambassador to Australia, Wang Xining, told the Guardian last week a boycott would hurt “the image of Australia as a very sporty nation”, adding: “To politicise a sport is a dumb move.”
Chinese officials flatly deny crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, blaming “anti-China entities” for the allegations. But the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, has complained of a lack of progress in seeking “meaningful” access to the region so she can investigate the situation.
Concerns about forced labour in Xinjiang have also driven calls for Australia to toughen its import laws so products are subjected to tighter screening.
The South Australian MP Rebekha Sharkie introduced a bill to the lower house on Monday “to ban the importation of goods that are produced in whole or part by forced labour”.
The proposal, which does not specify any particular country or region, mirrors a bill proposed by Patrick that passed the Senate three months ago.
Carolyn Kitto, the co-director of anti-slavery group Be Slavery Free, called on the government to back the bill to “give consumers the confidence they are not supporting slavery and slavery-like conditions in the imported products they purchase”.
Freya Dinshaw, a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, added: “No business should profit from slavery. Australians would be horrified to know there is no law in place to stop goods made with forced labour ending up on our shelves.”