The global tennis community is questioning what has happened to missing tennis star Peng Shuai, who has not been heard from since she made a public sexual assault accusation against a former Chinese official.
The 35-year-old Grand Slam doubles champion from China made the accusation in a social media post earlier this month, stating that former vice premier Zhang Gaoli sexually assaulted her before they began their years-long, on-off affair. The post was made on Peng’s account on Weibo, a leading Chinese social media platform.
“I have no evidence, and it is impossible to leave evidence at all,” Shuai wrote. “You are always afraid of what recorder I bring, leaving evidence or something… But even if I become like an egg hitting against a rocks and like moths extinguished in the flame, I will tell the truth about you.”
The allegation was deleted shortly after being posted, and since then the only news supposedly from Peng herself has come in form of an email of unconfirmed origins. The email states that the “allegation of sexual assault, is not true,” it was “released without [her] consent,” and that “[she’s] not missing, nor [is she] unsafe.” The email was sent to Steve Simons, chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association Tour, who said that nobody involved in the WTA Tour has been able to confirm this with Peng.
“The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” Simon said in a statement. “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her. Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government. The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe… Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source. Her allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship. The voices of women need to be heard and respected, not censored nor dictated to.”
The statement attributed to Peng came through CGTN, which is an official propaganda tool used by the ruling Communist Party. In the past, the news outlet has been used to try and sway overseas opinion of the Community Party, stating that it “brings a Chinese perspective to global news.”
Chinese officials have not shown intent to investigate Peng or her allegations. When questioned at foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian stated that “I have not heard of the issue… This is not a diplomatic question.”
However, new photos of Peng were posted on Friday by Hu Xijin, the editor of Global Times, a newspaper published by the Communist Party. The pictures were followed by a 45-second video that appears to show Peng at a restaurant in Beijing with China Open tournament co-director Zhang Junhui and two women.
“I confirmed through my own sources today that these photos are indeed Peng Shuai’s current state,” Hu tweeted. “In the past few days, she stayed in her own home freely and she didn’t want to be disturbed. She will show up in public and participate in some activities soon.”
“While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference,” Simon said concerning the new photos and video. “This video alone is insufficient. As I have stated from the beginning, I remain concerned about Peng Shuai’s health and safety and that the allegation of sexual assault is being censored and swept under the rug. I have been clear about what needs to happen and our relationship with China is at a crossroads.”
Peng is a former No. 1 globally ranked tennis player and a popular sports star in China, having also participated in three Olympics. Other tennis champions have voiced their admiration and concern for Peng, including professional Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka.
“Censorship is never ok at any cost, I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and ok,” Osaka tweeted. “I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way. #whereispengshuai.”
Roger Federer, one of the leading men’s tennis players, also commented on the situation.
“She’s one of our tennis champions, a former world No. 1, and clearly it’s concerning,” Federer said. “I hope she’s safe. The tennis family sticks together… I love the tour, I love the people that are there, [they] are special, the players as well, and she’s one of them.”
“The recent events in China concerning a WTA player, Peng Shuai, are of deep concern,” said WTA in an official statement. “As an organization dedicated to women, we remain committed to the principles we were founded on – equality, opportunity and respect… Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored.”
“We commend Peng Shuai for her remarkable courage and strength in coming forward,” the statement continued. “Women around the world are finding their voices so injustices can be corrected.”