Tennis Star Peng Shuai's Disappearance Has Become an International Incident

One of China’s most high-profile sports stars has been missing for weeks after making a sexual abuse allegation on social media against a retired higher-up in the Communist Party, attracting international headlines and prompting a social media firestorm, with athletes like Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka weighing in.

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has not been seen in public for 17 days, prompting the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai to start trending on Twitter. The United Nations and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) have also weighed in, with the latter organization threatening to stop doing business with the country if Peng’s whereabouts aren’t confirmed.

Who is Peng Shuai, and why is she trending?

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Peng, 35, is one of the most prominent Chinese tennis stars in the world, participating in three Olympics and ranking no. 14 worldwide in singles by the WTA in 2011. She also became the first Chinese sports star to be ranked number one in doubles in 2014 after winning titles in Wimbledon and the French Open in 2013 and 2014. She last made global headlines in 2018, when she was banned for six months and slapped with a $10,000 fine for allegedly attempting to coerce her doubles partner to drop out of Wimbledon.

On Nov. 2, Peng posted a lengthy statement on the social networking platform Weibo accusing Zhang Gaoli, a retired former Vice Premier in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), of pressuring her into having extramarital sex with him three years ago. In the post, Peng accused Zhang of inviting her to his home under the pretense of playing tennis with him and his wife, only to sexually assault her. She said that they then proceeded to have a sporadic consensual sexual relationship, though she could provide no proof to support her claims. “Like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you,” Peng wrote in the post, according to CBS Sports.

The social media post was deleted 30 minutes after it went up, and censors blocked Peng’s name and keywords such as “tennis” on Chinese social media platforms. But it had already gone viral and caught the attention of WTA chair Steve Simon, who made a statement demanding that Chinese authorities conduct a “full, fair, and transparent” investigation into the allegations. “The recent events in China concerning a WTA player, Peng Shuai, are of deep concern,” Simon said. “Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored.”

Concerns about Peng and her safety deepened when Chinese activists started pointing out that she had not been seen in public since she authored her initial post, prompting the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai to start trending. Though Simon told the New York Times on Nov. 14 that he had heard from several sources, including the Chinese Tennis Association, that Peng was “safe and not under any physical threat,” he also said that he had not heard from Peng directly.

Simon also added that the WTA Tour would withdraw from China if the country did not conduct a full investigation into Peng’s claims. In 2019, the WTA entered into a 10-year deal to hold finals in the city of Shenzhen from 2022 to 2030, an arrangement reportedly worth $1 billion that also included the construction of a new stadium. “If at the end of the day, we don’t see the appropriate results from this, we would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China if that’s what it came to,” he told the New York Times. 

Has Peng spoken out about the #WhereIsPengShuai campaign? 

Yes — but it’s unclear whether she is speaking for herself. On Wednesday, the Twitter account for China Global Television Network (which is affiliated with the Chinese state) posted a statement from an email allegedly authored by Peng to the WTA, stating that she did not approve of the WTA’s statements about her. In the post, she also refuted her original sexual assault allegation,  calling it “not true.” “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine,” the statement read.

In response, Simon released a statement on behalf of WTA questioning the authorship of the email. “The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” he said. “Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source.”

For its part, the Chinese government has claimed ignorance regarding Peng’s whereabouts. “I’m not aware of the situation,” ministory spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters on Friday, adding that it was “not a diplomatic question.”

Who has spoken out against Peng’s disappearance? 

Over the past two weeks, many of Peng’s peers in the tennis world have voiced their concern for her safety. “I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible,” Serena Williams wrote on Twitter, using the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai. “This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.” Naomi Osaka also spoke out on Peng’s behalf, tweeting, “I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way.”

Though the International Olympics Commission has declined to comment on the situation, saying in a statement on Thursday that “experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature,” UN spokesperson Liz Throssell said Friday that the organization was concerned for Peng’s safety and calling for “an investigation with full transparency into her allegation of sexual assault.”

“According to available information, the former world doubles No. 1 hasn’t been heard from publicly since she alleged on social media that she was sexually assaulted,” she said. “We would stress that it is important to know where she is and know her state, know about her wellbeing.”

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