Peng Shuai, Human Rights, and the Power of an Individual Example


Peng Shuai plays in the Australian Open on January 21, 2021. (Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters)

In Impromptus today, I lead with jury duty, which leads to Balkanization in our country — have you filled out your “juror information” form? — which leads to politics, which leads to . . . you know how it goes. Personalities in my column include Thomas Jefferson, Jim Harbaugh, and Mark Roth. (The last of those was a bowler.) (The second is a former quarterback and current coach.) (The first is a statue, removed.) Among the countries I discuss are Taiwan — it’s still a country, for now — Ukraine, Hungary, and India. Here on the Corner, I’d like to say something about China — great, vast China — and one Chinese citizen, in particular: Peng Shuai.

She is a tennis player, who was raped by a government official and said so. As a consequence, she was banished from view. A lot of people want to know where she is. Her case has galvanized the tennis community and segments of the general public, in various countries.

A reader of mine writes something like this: “Wouldn’t it be neat if some athlete, in some democratic country, said, ‘I’m not going to the Olympics while Peng Shuai is missing’? Wouldn’t it be even more neat if an entire team said, ‘We aren’t going, as long as she is missing’?”

That would indeed be amazing.

The Chinese state pulverizes people every day — people who are anonymous, except to their loved ones, and themselves. The state brutalizes the Tibetans, brutalizes the Uyghurs. Brutalizes ordinary Han Chinese. That’s what a dictatorship does: brutalize. And yet, the case of this one young woman has caught the attention of many people. People can understand it, wrap their minds around it: tennis player has been raped by a government official and has been disappeared. I know what she looks like. There’s her picture.

You recall the statement attributed to Stalin: “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.”

Yelena Bonner, the wife of Andrei Sakharov, the great physicist and dissident, told me that her husband disliked talking about human rights in general. He preferred to talk about individual cases — especially cases he was involved in personally. People could relate to that. Not “human rights.”

Over 25 years or so, I have written a lot about human rights in China — human rights in general, in that country. (By the way, there is an organization, founded in the 1980s, called, simply, Human Rights in China.) But I have also written about, say, Grace Gao. Hers is a story that people can relate to, I would think. I have written about the Uyghurs. Generally. But I have also written about Gulchehra Hoja and her family — personally.

Hong Kong is interesting. Interesting and important. So are Tanya Chan and Nathan Law, individually.

I have written a lot about Russia — and about Ildar Dadin, say, or Oyub Titiev, personally.

In Saudi Arabia: Raif Badawi and Ensaf Haidar, and Loujain al-Hathloul. In Venezuela: Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo López. In Nicaragua: Félix Maradiaga and Edipcia Dubón. In Iran: Manouchehr Honarmand and Masih Alinejad. In Cuba: Juan Carlos González Leiva and Danilo Maldonado.

And so on.

Syria is a place so dark and terrifying and murderous, it can scarcely be imagined. But one can narrow in on the life of, for example, Waad al-Kateab.

There are a billion and a half people in China. You can’t know them all. But Peng Shuai — “You know that tennis player?” I hope she does a lot of damage to that nasty, foul, life-opposing regime. It is an enemy of all mankind.

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