Peng Shuai is the Olympic movement’s ‘top human rights champion’, says ex-US official

The Olympic Committee’s “shameful” handling of Peng Shuai’s whereabouts after her match – resulting in China’s Player Council president offering to consider her request to withdraw – has made it the Olympic movement’s top human rights champion, says a former high-ranking US official.

“It’s shameful, a shabby deal,” former US human rights official Joanne O’Connor told the Guardian. “She was offered a dubious compromise to compete, let’s see what she does now.”

Peng’s appeal to her peers in a Players Council meeting last week was rejected and she was forced to play in China. She is set to face Venus Williams in the second round of the WTA Finals on Monday.

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O’Connor, an adjunct professor of justice at American University’s Washington College of Law and former director of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, was widely supportive of China’s Olympic bid at the Rio games but says that the WTA and the Olympic Committee have parted ways after an era of anti-China feeling among the two organisations.

“The Olympics were a big opportunity for China to boost its soft power and any chance that you give them any chance to praise themselves as good human rights citizens, big gulag. We haven’t left well enough alone. It’s been an open secret this was coming,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor said the WTA should have known there was a real chance that Peng, with a wealthy parents and privilege, would feel the pressure to compete against Chinese citizens, whom she must be aware have the worse rights record globally, behind bars for singing a song protesting corruption in government.

“Why is the WTA in a position to compete with the [Olympic] committee? This is an enormously powerful competitor in the WTA, they’re a global player and clearly a great player in the US, and they’re the largest economic player in sport in America,” she said.

China’s Olympic bid in 2016 was viewed as controversial around the world because the country’s public security law allows authorities to detain citizens for up to two years without formal charges. It has been likened to South Africa’s security state law and refers to “the serious threat of armed conflicts, and of any kind of terrorist activity.”

China is also notorious for its state-sponsored torture, forcing Xinjiang citizens – mostly Uighurs, an ethnic Muslim group – to sign confessions by using needles in the muscle and otherwise torturing them. Former detainee Xiao Jie said his interrogators hung him naked above a hot table so high that he caught a lung infection and then cut off the finger of the other end.

Despite the violations, China is fiercely protected in the international sports arena, even though it has been accused of human rights abuses at home and has actively sought to suppress political opposition, including attacks on protesters marching for democracy in Tiananmen Square.

O’Connor said Peng’s situation was the first major test for the WTA. The ballplayer clearly had a right to cancel but had been pressured by the Chinese national Olympic committee to participate, she said.

“You’ve got the highest pro women’s tennis players on planet Earth being told if you don’t show up for a gold medal match for the Chinese Olympic Committee, they’re going to kick you out of China,” she said. “As a human rights advocate, that’s a remarkable moment.”

Like the International Olympic Committee, the WTA gave soft to China and is taking a principled stand, said O’Connor.

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