Peng Shuai: China’s censorship of a tennis player

Kai Wang and Wanyuan Song
BBC Reality Check

Image source, Getty Images
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Peng Shuai’s online followers exceed half a millenial

After Peng Shaii, China’s best-known tennis player, made allegations of sexual assault against Weibo senior politicians, Peng Shuai was removed from her private feed.

This was 2 November. Since that time, she’s not been seen in public.

For Ms Peng, we’ve examined the events of that day in order to see the online censorship methods used.

Is Ms Peng still writing?

She published on Weibo a post claiming that she was forced to have sexual relations with Zhang Gaoli (a former vice-premier in China) on 2 November.

This post vanished quickly — probably within an hour.

The Wayback Machine web tool allows us to go back in time online and we can see there is no sign of any post.

We looked through Ms Peng’s timeline, and discovered that six other posts were missing.

It is not the first time that a prominent athlete has been blocked.

Hao Haidong (ex-China international footballer) was also censured last year after openly calling for the dissolution of China’s Communist Party.

Was it possible for her to disrupt the lives of her friends?

Weibo users can post comments to replies to posts, much like Twitter users.

But, Ms Peng has blocked comments on her timeline. This makes it difficult for her followers (more that half a billion) to have a conversation there.

Additionally, certain searches terms may have been temporarily blocked. So if you type Ms Peng’s Name, your search results might be limited. Some of these controls are now removed.

Other Weibo posts that were made by others and referring specifically to Ms Peng have been also removed.

Ouyang Wensheng wrote that on November 3, Chinese tennis commentator Ouyang wrote “Hope You are Safe” and “How desperately and helpless she must’ve been.” Both of these comments were removed.

Some people have creative ways to navigate the censors.

Weibo users refer to Zhang Gaoli by different names or initials, rather than directly referring to Zhang Gaoli.

The authorities know this, and any attempts to avoid the censors have been swiftly removed.

Are there wider internet searches available?

Baidu searches only show state-media reports on Peng Shuai, Zhang Gaoli.

Some social-media websites, like Douyin, Chinese TikTok, and other video-sharing sites Kuaishou or Bilibili have restricted search access that allows for sensitive terms to relate to the story.

Zhihu’s question-and answer website does not show any results when “Peng Shuai”, the name, is entered. There are however results when you search for “Zhang Gaoli”, with some posts showing him as a brave leader.

How has online responded to this question?

Many tennis stars have started to inquire about the whereabouts of Ms Peng.

Naomi Osaka was the former world number 1 and wrote on Twitter, “Censorship at any price is not OK.” “I’m shocked by the situation right now and will send love and light to her.”

The BBC does not have any responsibility for external websites’ content.See original Tweet on Twitter

A hashtag called #WhereIsPengShuai was used to start circulating online a few days back and it is currently trending on Twitter.

Chinese authorities were reluctant to comment on the matter.

Zhao Lijian (spokesman for foreign ministry) said Thursday that he didn’t know about the case, after being quizzed by journalists at a briefing. But his remarks were removed later from the official transcript.

Paul Myers also conducted additional research.

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