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The Morning Dispatch: Where Is Peng Shuai?
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The Morning Dispatch: Where Is Peng Shuai?

And what does her disappearance mean for the upcoming Olympics?

Happy Friday! President Joe Biden may be pardoning Peanut Butter and Jelly later today, but those turkeys know what they did—and they will answer to their creator. 

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its score of Democrats’ Build Back Better Act on Thursday, estimating that—before taking the effects of stricter tax enforcement into account—it would add $367 billion to the deficit between 2022 and 2031. In a separate analysis, the CBO estimated that BBB’s additional IRS funding would generate an additional $207 billion in revenue over the same time period, meaning if the CBO projections are accurate, the legislation would ultimately add about $160 billion to the deficit over 10 years.

  • The Justice Department announced Thursday that two Iranian men were charged for their role in a “cyber-enabled campaign to intimidate and influence American voters” ahead of the 2020 election. The indictment alleges the men—who worked for a company known to provide services to the Iranian government—attempted to compromise 11 state voter websites and impersonated the Proud Boys while sending messages to registered Democratic voters threatening physical harm if they did not change their party affiliation and vote for Donald Trump.

  • Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted the death sentence of Julius Jones on Thursday just hours before Jones—who was convicted of first-degree murder in 2002 but maintains his innocence—was set to die by lethal injection. Jones will now serve life in prison without the possibility for parole.

  • President Biden on Thursday signed into law three bipartisan bills aimed at supporting law enforcement and first responders. Shortly after, the Justice Department announced $139 million in grant funding that will allow 183 police departments nationwide to hire more than 1,000 full-time law enforcement officials.

  • Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina announced Thursday he will not run for reelection next year, expressing frustration with his state’s Republican-led redistricting process.He is now the 16th incumbent House Democrat planning to retire or run for another office.

  • The number of daily new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has increased 23 percent over the past two weeks while hospitalizations and deaths attributed to the virus have decreased 1 and 13 percent over the same timeframe, respectively.

  • Initial jobless claims decreased by 1,000 week-over-week to 268,000 last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

International Concern Grows Over Missing Chinese Tennis Star

Peng Shuai at the 2020 at WTA Shenzhen Open. (Photo by Zhong Zhi/Getty Images.)

On November 2, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai posted a lengthy statement on social media platform Weibo alleging that former People’s Republic of China Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli—who served on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo Standing Committee ruling council from 2013 to 2018—forced her to have sex with him about three years ago. She hasn’t been seen in public since.

“I was very scared that afternoon,” Peng—the world’s No. 1-ranked doubles player in 2014—wrote in describing the assault, according to a widely circulated translation of the post. Peng, now 35 years old, said she and the 75-year-old Zhang had a relationship nearly a decade earlier, but that she hadn’t heard from him in years—until he reached out asking to play tennis. “After playing in the morning, you and your wife Kang Jie took me to your house. Then you took me into your room,” she claimed. “I didn’t expect it to be like this, with someone standing outside the door guarding. … Why did you come back to me, take me to your house, and force me to have sex with you?”

China’s Great Firewall quickly got to work. Peng’s allegations—for which she admitted she had no corroborating evidence, only her story—were scrubbed from the Chinese internet within minutes. Searches of the tennis player’s name—and even the word “tennis”—were temporarily blocked. Censors reportedly went so far as to suspend Weibo accounts that referenced the story in private direct messages.

Some Chinese dissidents have theorized that—because the post was allowed to stay up for about 20 minutes rather than being squashed immediately—the allegation is being weaponized for President Xi Jinping’s own internal political purposes ahead of a vote that’s expected to reinstall him for a third term. But most view the scandal for what it is: The highest-profile #MeToo accusation ever leveled against a CCP official.

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has taken notice, with CEO Steve Simon over the weekend calling for a fair and transparent investigation into Peng’s allegation. “If at the end of the day, we don’t see the appropriate results from this, we would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China if that’s what it came to,” he told the New York Times. “We’re not going to back off this position. It’s the right place to be.”

In a world where the NBA apologized for “deeply offending” its Chinese fans after a team executive expressed support for Hong Kong and Nike’s CEO refused to weigh in on China’s human rights abuses in a discussion of the company’s “values,” the WTA’s willingness to stand up to the CCP—and risk losing access to one of the world’s most lucrative markets, where it currently holds about 10 tournaments that generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue—has been a pleasant surprise to critics of Beijing.

“Standing up to Chairman Xi’s lies isn’t easy, but the Women’s Tennis Association has shown more backbone than most American Fortune 500 companies,” GOP Sen. Ben Sasse told The Dispatch Thursday. “Chairman Xi fears the truth and the truth is exactly what Americans and the entire freedom loving world needs to hammer home.”

Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat who serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed similar sentiments. “Western corporations that engage with China … need to take steps to avoid complicity in the increasingly brazen behavior of China’s government towards its own people,” he told The Dispatch. “Every time a Western company or institution is silent, the Chinese government takes the message that they can do more—that their size, wealth, and power protects them from accountability. And that just encourages behavior that will put our companies in more and more difficult positions in the future.”

The WTA doubled down on its stance Wednesday after CCP-owned China Global Television Network (CGTN) reported—only in English, for Western audiences—that Peng sent an email to Simon confirming her safety. The Dispatch cannot independently confirm that Peng didn’t write the email, but, well, read it for yourself:

Simon came to a similar conclusion. “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” he said. “The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe. I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail.”

Some of the world’s top tennis players have rallied to Peng’s defense in recent days under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai. “I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible,” 23-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena Williams tweeted. “This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.”

“Censorship is never ok at any cost,” Naomi Osaka added. “I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way.”

As unsettling as the situation is, Peng is not the first high profile Chinese figure to “disappear” overnight. Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma wasn’t seen for three months last year after he criticized China’s financial system and has since reemerged with a newfound focus on donating his billions to charity. Actress Fan Bingbing—arguably the country’s biggest star—vanished for months in 2018 after reports of tax evasion came to light. “I have failed the country, society’s support and trust, and the love of my devoted fans!” she said in a statement upon her reappearance. Without the CCP, she continued, “there would have been no Fan Bingbing!”

May Jeong reported on Fan’s disappearance for Vanity Fair a year later:

According to the South China Morning Post, she had been held under a form of detention known as “residential surveillance,” at a holiday resort in a suburb of Jiangsu. The system was instituted in 2012, under President Xi Jinping, making it legal for the Chinese secret police to detain anyone charged with endangering state security or committing corruption and hold them at an undisclosed location for up to six months without access to lawyers or family members. Sources close to Fan told me that she had been picked up by plainclothes police. While under detention, she was forbidden to make public statements or use her phone. She wasn’t given a pen or paper to write with, nor allowed any privacy, even when taking showers.

Aside from the CGTN report of Peng’s “email,” the CCP has refused to acknowledge the tennis player’s disappearance. Asked earlier this week about Peng, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian simply said, “I have not heard of the issue you raised.”

A question seeking the White House’s position on the situation yielded similarly little information. “We have, of course, seen the reports,” press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday. “We, unfortunately, just don’t have any additional information on it or additional comment.” The White House did not respond to questions from The Dispatch asking if the allegations came up in President Biden’s meeting with Xi earlier this week, or if the administration plans to pressure the CCP on its censorship.

Will Peng’s Disappearance Affect the Olympics?

The allegations—and ensuing international pressure—come at a particularly precarious time for Xi and the CCP, as opening ceremonies for the 2022 Olympics are set to kick off in Beijing in just 77 days. On Thursday, President Biden appeared to confirm Josh Rogin’s reporting from earlier this week that the administration plans to diplomatically boycott the games in response to China’s human rights abuses.

“It’s something we’re considering,” he told a reporter before a bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. If such a diplomatic boycott occurs, neither Biden nor any other government officials will attend the proceedings—but American athletes who have trained their entire lives for this moment will still compete. 

The position lines up with what Sen. Mitt Romney—who played a significant role in salvaging the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City—told The Dispatch back in March. “The United States should demonstrate our repudiation of China’s abuses in a way that will hurt the Chinese Communist Party—not American athletes who have trained their entire lives for this competition,” he said. “We can do that by boycotting the Beijing Olympics economically and diplomatically, while letting the games proceed.”

But with the games drawing nearer, pressure is mounting for the United States to skip them altogether—and Peng’s disappearance is adding fuel to the fire. “If the Chinese Communists disappear their own athletes, just think how much less they’ll care for the safety of ours,” Sen. Tom Cotton told The Dispatch Thursday.

Earlier in the day, the Arkansas Republican held a press conference calling on the Biden administration to launch a complete boycott of what he labeled the “genocide Olympics” being held in Beijing. “[The White House does] not have a plan to protect our athletes from the threats the Chinese Communist Party poses to them,” he said. “Ubiquitous surveillance, DNA harvesting, or even hostage taking.”

Sen. Marco Rubio focused his criticism on the International Olympic Committee, which through a spokesman on Thursday declined to comment on the Peng situation. “The IOC’s mission includes ‘the protection of athletes from all forms of harassment and abuse,’” Rubio said. “It is time for the IOC to relocate the games, even if that means postponing them, and treat the Chinese Communist Party like the evil, abusive regime that it is.”

A full boycott of the games would not be unprecedented for the United States, as it was one of more than 60 countries that refused to participate in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan the year prior. Americans were also a handful of Amateur Athletic Union votes away from boycotting the 1936 Games in Nazi Germany.

“[Hitler] was really dependent on putting on a good, successful show in Berlin in ‘36 in order to demonstrate the competence, and efficiency, and mastery of his regime,” David Clay Large, author of Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936, told The Dispatch. “Had his party been ruined by a major boycott of the Western nations—I don’t think it would have necessarily changed his policies, but it would have been a blow to his prestige, especially at home, where younger people in particular were counting on him to put on a truly successful event.”

A historian at the Fromm Institute at the University of San Francisco, Large isn’t sure a boycott of Beijing next year would have its intended effect. “Beijing hosted the Summer Games in 2008, the argument being, well that might change them,” he said. “If anything, [a 2022 boycott] might make China even more xenophobic. You could imagine them saying, ‘This is just more proof of the West’s envy, of the West’s desire to isolate us.’”

It’s an interesting debate, but it will likely end up being moot. Michael Sobolik—a China expert at the America Foreign Policy Council—expects the games to go on as scheduled. “If an ongoing genocide isn’t enough to derail the Beijing 2022 games,” he told The Dispatch, “then a disappeared tennis player won’t stop them either.”

Worth Your Time

  • Jacob Chansley—January 6’s “QAnon Shaman”—was sentenced this week to 41 months in prison after pleading guilty to a felony count of obstructing an official proceeding before Congress. In The Bulwark, Tim Miller argues this is not justice. “A man who attends a Donald Trump speech on the Mall wearing facepaint, horns, and a ushanka made from wolf’s fur is not an enemy of democracy. He’s a mentally unstable pawn who is being manipulated by evil and power hungry men,” he writes. “What happened that day was unconscionable. People need to learn that they can’t live out their violent right-wing internet cosplay in the real world and get away with it. Attempting to overthrow democracy should be met with severe punishments. … [But] the people responsible for what happened on January 6 are Donald Trump, and Ali ‘Akbar’ Alexander, and Mo Brooks, and Josh Hawley, and the Proud Boys and other militiamen who organized an attempt on the Capitol on behalf of the man who told them to ‘stand back and stand by.’”

  • In National Review, Dan McLaughlin makes a very different case, arguing that if anything the judge went too easy on Chansley. “This is precisely the sort of exemplary punishment that riots demand and that is particularly necessary and in accordance with America’s Jacksonian tradition of example-making in responding to January 6,” he writes. “There is a reason why I previously cited, as precedents, George Washington’s executing the leaders of a mutiny in 1781, Abraham Lincoln’s hanging of 38 leaders of a Sioux uprising in 1862, William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea to bring the horrors of the Civil War home to the Confederacy, Harry Truman’s dropping the atom bomb, and Calvin Coolidge’s and Ronald Reagan’s firing strikers against the public safety. All of those men understood the same basic calculus: Dramatic offenses require dramatic responses in order to deter a repetition.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Fan favorite Will Saletan is back on The Remnant, joining Jonah for a conversation about nationalism, universal principles, and what makes America great. Plus: Is the pandemic over? What does the Virginia result mean for both parties? And can Biden’s presidency recover after a disastrous few months?

  • On Thursday’s Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah talk with Neil Weare of Equally American about the Insular Cases and the unique legal history of American territories.

  • On the site today, Danielle Pletka looks into the complex ways that China disguises purchases of artificial intelligence, military technology, energy supplies and other sensitive goods from the West.

Let Us Know

Do you think the Women’s Tennis Association confronting the Chinese Communist Party is the beginning of a trend, or an aberration?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).