Defence Minister Peter Dutton has urged celebrities and athletes to use their star status to draw attention to China’s treatment of women, warning that Beijing is escaping scrutiny despite the plight of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai.
Mr Dutton said it was “quite remarkable” that many celebrities were not speaking up about Peng considering the power and influence of the #MeToo movement in Western countries.
Peter Dutton says China’s treatment of Peng Shuai should not be tolerated.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
The wellbeing of Peng, a Wimbledon doubles champion and former world No.14 singles player, has been a concern for weeks after she alleged a former Chinese vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her.
Peng is not expected to compete at the Australian Open, to start on January 17, but the tournament will be the first grand slam since she went public with her allegations.
“I don’t understand how, in the year 2021, in the #MeToo age, we can have an international female tennis star who claims to have been raped and sexually assaulted and she’s now effectively under house arrest and has had her social media account wiped, and somehow that’s behaviour that we should tolerate,” Mr Dutton told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in an interview for an upcoming four-part series on Australia’s defence capability.
“Well, it’s not – and we’re better off to speak publicly about it because otherwise the behaviour won’t change.”
While notable tennis stars have spoken up about Peng’s welfare, athletes and celebrities have been criticised in recent years for kowtowing to China; the film industry in Hollywood regularly shapes its productions to please Beijing.
Asked if he was concerned about the reticence of Hollywood and sports stars to talk about China’s human rights abuses, Mr Dutton said: “I find it quite remarkable … when you look at the power of the #MeToo movement in Western societies.
“We wouldn’t tolerate, and nor would we ever want to tolerate, the suggestion that if somebody had been raped, that it wasn’t going to be addressed,” he said.
“And not to mention the plight of tens of thousands of others who find themselves in the same position where they’re either threatened or their human rights are violated or otherwise, the Uighurs and the rest.
“And so part of my judgment in being honest about these things is that I think if we want change, and we want China to continue to be a great power but to abide by the rule of law, then we should be speaking about it.”
Peng Shuai accused former Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually abusing her, before retracting the allegations.Credit:
Mr Dutton has been criticised by the federal opposition and some national security experts for his comments on the prospect of a conflict breaking out with China in the years ahead over Taiwan. This included comments in November in which he said it would be “inconceivable” for Australia not to join the United States if it decided to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack.
Mr Dutton said his focus was on “prevailing peace” in the region, but that he also thought it was important to be “honest and speak frankly with the Australian public”.
“If there was conflict of some nature in our region, then I don’t think the public want to wake up to that news in the newspaper, not having heard anything about it, or the prospect of it, before,” he said. “So I think it’s best firstly to be honest.”
The #MeToo hashtag is censored in China, while the social media accounts of women’s rights activists have been suspended and shut down; some have faced harassment and surveillance.
The Chinese government last month moved to overhaul its key piece of legislation protecting women’s rights for the first time in almost 20 years, but activists have warned it doesn’t go nearly far enough in outlining punishments for abuse perpetrators.
Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher with Human Rights Watch, said women’s rights activists and victims of sexual abuse in China faced government censorship, harassment, surveillance and even detention for speaking up.
“The women’s rights movement is terribly suppressed. Therefore, it is very important that the international community pays attention to and shows support for women’s rights in China,” she said.
“I do hope feminists in the West can pay more attention to women’s rights issues in China, but I understand the reasons for the lack thereof. The Chinese government’s internet censorship and the suppression on international exchanges make it harder for feminists in the West to know the situation in China.”
Ms Wang said the Chinese government had for years leveraged access to the China market to silence international criticism, adding there was a “collective reticence” in Hollywood to speak up about human rights issues in China.
“Celebrities like Richard Gere – who is a longtime supporter of the Tibetan cause – paid a heavy price for openly criticising the Chinese government,” she said.
“But recently, I feel very encouraged to see stars like Naomi Osaka speaking up for Peng Shuai, despite knowing that her commercial interests can be hurt because of that.”
Blair Williams, from the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at the Australian National University, said the treatment of women in China was a significant concern, but Australia needed to make sure it got its own house in order before lecturing others on the world stage.
“We have a Parliament that has had so much sexual assault, harassment, abuse and bullying and all the kind of toxic workplace culture that we’ve seen throughout last year,” Dr Williams said.
“Before we start pointing fingers at other people’s backyards, we really need to make sure our backyard is clean. We really need to improve the situation in Australian politics.
“This is a global struggle. This is happening everywhere. And that is something that we need to fight for, rather than making it a political football.”
Veronica Koman, Amnesty International Australia campaign strategist, said the Chinese government had a track record of silencing women who made allegations of sexual violence, including repeatedly attempting to shut down the country’s #MeToo movement.
“While we welcome Peter Dutton’s concerns and agree there needs to be more done with regards China’s treatment of women, we believe Dutton himself could have been doing more to ensure that women in Australia are safe, particularly those in Parliament and the defence forces,” she said.
Ms Koman said next month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing would provide a good platform for people to speak about China’s treatment of women as well as other human rights concerns.
Australia has launched a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games over China’s human rights record, meaning no Australian government officials will attend events.
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