Peng Shuai, 35, is one of China’s most recognisable sporting stars. The former tennis doubles World No 1, she also reached No 14 in the singles rankings, and won two women’s doubles grand slams at Wimbledon in 2013 and the 2014 French Open. She also competed in multiple Olympics.
Peng is now the subject of international speculation and concern after she posted sexual assault allegations against a powerful former government official earlier this month, and hasn’t been seen since.
On 2 November Peng posted a lengthy statement to Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, in which she accused the country’s former vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, of sexually assaulting her.
Peng said she and Zhang, now 75, had for several years had an on-off extramarital “relationship”. Peng said Zhang had stopped contacting her after he rose in the ranks of the Communist party, but about three years ago invited her to play tennis with him and his wife and then sexually assaulted her in his house.
In her Weibo post, Peng said she couldn’t produce any evidence of her accusation but was determined to voice them. “Like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you,” she wrote.
The accusation is the most significant of China’s #MeToo movement, which has struggled to gain traction in the face of strict censorship, an opaque justice system, and social and political hostility. No public accusation has been levelled against a senior official of the Chinese Communist party before, let alone one as high-ranking as Zhang.
The post was deleted by China’s strict censors in less than 30 minutes, but nonetheless went viral. As people sought to discuss and share the news, censors clamped down, blocking keywords like “tennis”, disabling comments on Peng’s account, and removing numerous references to her from China’s internet.
There has been no official response. Neither China’s government nor Zhang, who sat on the CCP’s highest ruling body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, have responded to media queries or made any public statements. The spokesperson for China’s ministry of foreign affairs, which deals with foreign press, has said it is not a diplomatic issue and he has no knowledge of the incident.
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), through its chief executive Steve Simon, has demanded a full investigation into Peng’s allegations. Simon said he had received “assurances” from the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA) that Peng was “safe and not under any physical threat” but no one from the WTA was able to contact her to confirm.
Across several statements and interviews, Simon made it clear that the WTA expected action on Peng’s claims, and they were willing to jeopardise the lucrative access to the Chinese market to ensure it. Simon said allegations that one of their players had been sexually assaulted was an area where there could be no compromise.
“We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it,” Simon told CNN. “Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business. Women need to be respected and not censored.”
Tennis stars have also joined the campaign, often posting under the hashtag #whereisPengShuai. Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Kim Cljisters, Martina Navratilova, and Stanislas Wawrinka were among those calling for answers. Spanish footballer Gerard Piqué, founder and president of the investment group which co-runs the Davis Cup, also posted to his 20.1 million followers.
There are now calls for the International Olympic Committee to step in. Beijing is hosting the Winter Games in February and was already subject to calls for a boycott. The IOC declined to comment, instead cryptically saying: “Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature.”
Just as demands for answers were escalating China’s state-run English-language broadcaster, CGTN, said Peng had emailed Simon to say “everything is fine”. As evidence the broadcaster tweeted a screenshot of a block of text which it said was the email.
Simon and the WTA dismissed the suggestion the email came from Peng, and said it only increased his concern.
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her.”
There were other elements which also prompted skepticism. The language of the letter was similar to previous forced confessions by detainees in China, the screenshot included a visible cursor in the text, and it was not published anywhere inside China, or in Chinese.
On Friday Hu Xijin, editor of the fiery state-media tabloid Global Times, said he didn’t believe Shuai had been subject to any “retaliation”. However in a sign of the sensitivity inside China, the usually free-speaking Hu didn’t specify the allegation, referring instead to “the things people talk about”.