Julien Chen was getting ready for bed when he learned that one of his favorite Chinese tennis players, Peng Shuai, had made #MeToo allegations against a powerful Chinese official.
A friend told him to check Ms Peng’s social media account. “There is a ‘huge melon’ in the tennis circle,” the friend wrote, using the Chinese metaphor for a bomb.
Mr. Chen couldn’t find anything. He searched for the word ‘tennis’, but Ms. Peng – one of China’s most famous athletes – got hardly any results. With astonishing efficiency, the Chinese censors had begun to remove references to her allegations from the internet.
“Suddenly it became a banned topic,” Mr Chen said.
Ms. Peng is not the first celebrity in China to be almost completely wiped out by censors. The nation’s online propaganda machine can make just about any story — or person — disappear. But its international profile has made the task more difficult, and China’s attempt to brush aside its allegations has drawn deep criticism around the world.
On Wednesday, the Women’s Tennis Association Tour suspended its future tournaments in the country, prompting China’s foreign ministry to reiterate that China was “against the politicization of sports”. But Chinese tennis fans are also pushing back, using subtle, sometimes ironic language to express their frustration online as they try to outsmart censorship.
There has been little overt discussion of Ms Peng on Chinese social media. A popular online tennis fan club in China, a forum called Tennis Post Bar, has not been updated since Nov. 2, the day Ms. Peng, a three-time Olympian, publicly made her accusations against Zhang Gaoli, a former deputy prime minister.
To evade the censorship, Chinese tennis fans have started using obscure references to draw more attention to Ms Peng’s silence. Rather than identify her Chinese name and specify the details of her accusations, some people have used vague references such as “a tennis player” and “the spit.”
There was a seemingly unrelated post on art that used the phrase “smashing an egg against a rock.” It echoed a line in Ms. Peng’s original allegation, where she wrote that taking on someone as powerful as Mr. Zhang was like “beating an egg on a rock.”
Even figures in the state media have challenged how to discuss Ms Peng without raising the alarm. Commenting on Twitter, which is banned in the country, Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of a newspaper controlled by the ruling Communist Party, referred to Ms Peng’s accusations as “what people were talking about.”
Two weeks after the media blackout, some of the biggest names in tennis began to wonder aloud about Ms. Peng’s safety. Chinese state media responded by releasing a torrent of content for international viewers claiming to confirm she was happy and unharmed. One of the stories managed to reach the domestic audience in China.
It featured photos of Ms. Peng signing giant tennis balls for fans at a youth tennis tournament. A post on the verified account of China Open, a professional tennis tournament in Beijing, was shared nearly a thousand times and caught the attention of irritated commentators.
“It’s the most reposted post about a youth tournament event I’ve ever seen in my career,” Zhang Bendou, an experienced tennis expert in China, wrote on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. Others made more mocking comments. “Almost everyone asks ‘where is **’?” one person wrote, leaving Ms. Peng’s name out of the comment. “She showed up.”
For Lucy Wang, a dentist and tennis fan in Beijing, who personally watched one of Ms. Peng’s singles matches at the China Open in 2017, the photos were enough to put her at ease. “Knowing she’s back is enough for me,” said Ms. Wang, 37. “I have no idea why people outside of China are still unhappy.”
The International Olympic Committee later released a statement and a photo of Ms Peng smiling in a live video call with the organization’s president. China, which will host the Winter Olympics in February, seized the moment to complain that most Western media and sports organizations were biased and unfair about the matter.
On Thursday, the IOC released another statement, saying that members of the organization had held a second video conference with Ms Peng this week, but did not provide details of the conversation. It said it used “silent diplomacy” with Chinese sports organizations to address the issue.
Steve Simon, the CEO of the WTA Tour, was one of the most outspoken critics of the Chinese authorities, demanding an investigation into the #MeToo allegations. Short news about the suspension of the WTA Tour circulated on the Chinese internet on Thursday morning.
Understand the disappearance of Peng Shuai
Where is Peng Shuai? The Chinese tennis star disappeared from view for weeks after she accused a top Chinese leader of sexual assault. Recent videos that appear to show Ms Peng have done little to allay concerns about her safety.
Some Weibo users expressed support for the decision before their comments were removed. “This time I’m at the WTA,” one wrote. Another was surprised that Mr. Zhang had not yet been detained. “He’s got a really strong backing,” the post said. “Ridiculous.”
While these anonymous online commentators have tried to use the internet to push back the censors, the seriousness of the allegations has made many in China hesitant to talk about Ms Peng publicly.
Ashley Tian only learned about Ms Peng’s accusation on Nov. 3, the day after it was posted. At the time, “online discussions were as clean as a blank sheet of paper,” she said. Ms Tian, a former sports journalist in Shanghai, heard about it from a former colleague, who explained the details in a voice message.
During dinner that night, Ms. Tian shared the message with some friends, who bent over for the discussion. “Shall we talk about it here?” Mrs. Tian remembered a friend who nervously asked. They changed the subject.
“People don’t even dare to talk about it in public,” she said. “I think what Peng really went through would remain a mystery forever.”
An avid fan who had watched Ms. Peng play tennis at tournaments in Zhuhai and Shenzhen, Mr. Chen said his experience of finding out what had happened to her that night was both frustrating and eye-opening. “I was shocked and had no idea how fast these things are evolving,” he said.
Still upset by the whole experience, Mr Chen said he was disappointed with Wednesday’s WTA Tour announcement, saying he prefers watching female tennis players because he believes women have more diverse skills on the court than men. .
He said he particularly enjoyed watching Ms Peng’s strong service, but wondered if her allegations would ever be investigated in China. “We know things like this happen and we care,” he said. “But most of us choose to remain silent.”
He added: “That’s the reality in China.”