Sport

#WhereIsPengShuai

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai still missing after sexual assault claims, WTA demands proof she is safe

Peng Shuai of China during her first-round match against Japan's Nao Hibino at the Australian Open in Melbourne on 21 January 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Francis Malasig)

The head of the Women’s Tennis Association has voiced doubt over an email it received, also released by a Chinese state media outlet, in which tennis player Peng Shuai was said to deny her allegations of sexual assault.

Peng, one of China’s biggest sports stars, said on social media this month that former Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli coerced her into sex and that they later had an on-off consensual relationship.

Her post was deleted about half an hour later and since then has not been seen in public or made a statement, alarming the global tennis community.

On Twitter on 17 November, Chinese state media outlet CGTN released what it said was an email Peng had sent to Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) chairperson Steve Simon, who is also its CEO, in which she said the allegation of assault was untrue. Twitter is blocked in China.

“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 on Wednesday.

“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her.”

Beijing has yet to comment on Peng’s initial allegation and discussion of the topic has been blocked on China’s heavily censored internet.

The statement comes as China prepares to host the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February 2022 amid calls from global rights groups and others for a boycott over its human rights record.

“My answer is very simple. This is not a foreign affairs matter, and I am not aware of the situation you mentioned,” foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Thursday when asked about Peng’s whereabouts and whether China is concerned her case would affect its image ahead of the Olympics.

The Chinese Tennis Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The email which CGTN attributes to Peng says: “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.”

Besides CGTN, the English-language arm of state broadcaster CCTV, no other Chinese media outlet, as of Thursday morning in Asia, had reported the letter.

A representative for Peng did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Florida-based WTA and its men’s counterpart, the London-based Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), previously called on China to investigate Peng’s allegations.

Current and former players, from multi-major winners Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic to Billie Jean King, have expressed support and concern for Peng, with many top women’s players taking to social media with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.

“The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe,” Simon wrote. “I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communications, to no avail.”

Peng (35) was the first Chinese player to top the world rankings when she was doubles No 1 in 2014. She won doubles titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.

Zhang, now 75, was a vice-premier between 2013 and 2018 and served on the Politburo Standing Committee between 2012 and 2017.

“I hope @WTA continues to show what we stand for as players,” Jessica Pegula, a top-20 American player, said on Twitter. “We are extremely lucky to be able to do what we do but I hope more people, not just tennis players, shed some light on this deeply concerning situation.” 

WTA threat

The WTA is prepared to pull its tournaments out of China if they are not satisfied with the response to the assault allegation made by Peng Shuai, Simon said.

“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.”

China has been the focus of aggressive WTA expansion over the past decade and hosted nine tournaments in the 2019 season – the last before the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic – with a total $30.4-million prize money on offer.

Women’s tennis great Serena Williams and Osaka added their voices on Thursday to the growing chorus of tennis players and other sporting figures calling for an independent investigation.

“This must be investigated and we must not stay silent,” Williams wrote on social media. “Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time.”

Osaka tweeted: “Censorship is never okay at any cost. I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and okay. I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way.”

The Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), a new body representing players set up by men’s world No 1 Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil, said players must be prepared to take action if Peng’s safety cannot be confirmed.

“The PTPA is advocating for independent evidence confirming the safety and location of WTA player Peng Shuai,” the body said. “We must unite and be willing to take action unless corroborated evidence is provided to the world about Peng’s wellbeing.”

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) is also committed to player safety and supports an investigation into Peng’s whereabouts, the governing body said on Thursday.

“Player safety is always our top priority and we support a full and transparent investigation into this matter,” the ITF said in a statement to Reuters.

Simon’s demands were backed by rights group Amnesty International, which said China must prove Peng is safe.

“Peng’s recent so-called statement that ‘everything is fine’ should not be taken at face value as China’s state media has a track record of forcing statements out of individuals under duress, or else simply fabricating them,” said Amnesty’s China researcher, Doriane Lau.

“These concerns will not go away unless Peng’s safety and whereabouts are confirmed.”

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it would not comment on the matter.

“Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature,” an IOC spokesperson said.

“This explains why the IOC will not comment any further at this stage.”

Peng is a three-time Olympian, having competed at the Beijing 2008 Games and in the London 2012 and the Rio de Janeiro 2016 editions. Reuters/DM

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