Julien Chen was getting ready for bed when he learned that one of his favorite Chinese tennis players, Peng Shuai, directed #MeToo allegations against a powerful Chinese official.
A friend asked him to check Ms. Bing’s social media account. The friend wrote: “There is a ‘huge melon’ on the tennis circuit, using the Chinese metaphor for a bomb.
Mister Chen couldn’t find anything. He searched for the word “tennis”, but Ms. Ping – one of China’s most famous athletes – came up with hardly any result. With amazing efficiency, Chinese watchers began scrubbing references to her claims from the Internet.
“Suddenly, it became a taboo subject,” Mister Chen said.
Ms. Bing isn’t the first celebrity in China to be almost completely wiped out by censorship. The country’s online propaganda machine can make any story – or person – disappear. However, its international standing has made the task more difficult, and China’s attempt to set aside its claims has met with heavy criticism around the world.
On Wednesday, the Women’s Tennis Association Tour suspended its future tournaments in the country, prompting the Chinese Foreign Ministry to stress that China “opposes the politicization of the sport.” But Chinese tennis fans are holding back, too, using subtle and sometimes tongue-in-cheek language to express their frustration online as they try to outsmart the censors.
On Chinese social media, there has been little open discussion about Ms. Peng. A famous online tennis forum called in China Tennis Post Bar, has not been updated since November 2, the day Ms. Peng, a three-times Olympian, made her accusations publicly against Zhang Gaoli, a former deputy prime minister.
To avoid censorship, Chinese tennis fans have begun using ambiguous references to draw more attention to Ms. Peng’s silence. Instead of identifying her Chinese name and detailing her allegations, some people have used vague references such as “tennis player” and “discord”.
There was a seemingly unrelated post about art that used the phrase “hitting an egg on a rock”. It echoed Ms. Peng’s original claim, writing that confronting someone as strong as Mr. Zhang was like “beating a rock with an egg.”
Even government media figures found themselves challenged how to discuss Ms. Ping without sounding ultimatums. Commenting on Twitter, which is banned in the country, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the official state newspaper of the Communist Party of China, referred to Ms Peng’s accusations as “the thing people talked about”.
After two weeks of media blackout, some of the biggest names in the tennis world are starting to question aloud about Ms. Bing’s safety. Chinese state media responded by launching a flurry of content for international viewers that claimed they were happy and doing no harm. One of the stories managed to reach a local audience in China.
It included pictures of Ms. Peng tossing giant tennis balls to fans at a youth tennis tournament. A post on the verified account of the China Open, a professional tennis tournament in Beijing, has been shared nearly a thousand times and caught the attention of angry commentators.
“It’s the most reposted youth tournament event of my career,” Zhang Bendou, a veteran tennis expert in China, wrote on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. Others made more derisive statements. Almost everyone asks ‘Where**? One person wrote, leaving Mrs. Peng’s name outside the comment. “I have attended.”
For Lucy Wang, a dentist and tennis enthusiast in Beijing, who watched one of Mrs. Peng’s singles matches in person at the China Open in 2017, the images were enough to calm her mind. “Knowing that she’s back is enough for me,” said Ms. Wang, 37. “I have no idea why people outside of China are so unhappy.”
The International Olympic Committee later released a statement and a picture of a smiling Ms. Ping in a live video call with the organization’s chief. China, which is due to host the Winter Olympics in February, took the moment to complain that most Western media and sports organizations were biased and dishonest on the issue.
On Thursday, the International Olympic Committee released another statment, saying that members of the organization held a secondary video conference with Ms Ping this week, but did not provide any details about the conversation. She said she was using “quiet diplomacy” with Chinese sports organizations to address the matter.
WTA Tour CEO Steve Simon has been one of the most vocal critics of the Chinese authorities, calling for an investigation into the #MeToo allegations. News of the suspension of the WTA tour briefly circulated on the Chinese Internet Thursday morning.
I understand the disappearance of Bing Shuai
Some users on Weibo expressed support for the decision before their comments were removed. “This time I’m with the WTA,” one wrote. Another was puzzled by the fact that Mr. Zhang had not yet been detained. “He really has a very strong backing,” the post read. “silly.”
While these anonymous online commentators have attempted to use the internet to respond to censorship, the severity of the allegations has made many in China reluctant to speak about Ms. Peng publicly.
Ashley Tian did not learn of Ms. Bing’s accusation until November 3, the day after it was published. At the time, “online discussions were as clean as a white paper,” she said. Tian, a former sports writer in Shanghai, heard about it from a former colleague who explained the details in an audio message.
At dinner that evening, Madame Tian shared the message with some friends, who bent over closely to discuss. “Should we talk about it here?” Madam Tian remembered that a friend nervously asked her. They have changed the subject.
“People don’t even dare discuss it publicly,” she said. “I think what Bing really went through will forever remain a mystery.”
As a passionate fan who watched Ms. Peng play tennis at tournaments in Zhuhai and Shenzhen, Mr. Chen said his experience trying to find out what happened to her that evening was both frustrating and impressive. “I was shocked and I don’t know how quickly these things are developing,” he said.
Still unsettled by the whole experience, Mr. Chen said he was disappointed by the WTA tour announcement on Wednesday, saying he prefers watching female tennis players because he believes women have more diverse skills on the court than men.
He said he especially liked watching Ping’s punches, but wondered if her allegations would be investigated in China. “We know these kinds of things happen and we care about them,” he said. “But most of us choose to remain silent.”
“This is the reality in China,” he added.