Peng Shuai: Message from missing Chinese tennis player sparks safety concerns

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Peng Shuai of China returns a ball during the semifinal match against Shahar Peer of Israel (AP)
Peng Shuai of China returns a ball during the semifinal match against Shahar Peer of Israel (AP)

Missing tennis player Peng Shuai sent an email claiming she was safe and that recent allegations were false which has only increased concern for her wellbeing.

The Chinese Grand Slam doubles champion has not been seen in public since she allegedly accused a former top government official of sexual assault.

So far, calls for information on her safety and whereabouts have been met by silence.

Officials have said nothing publicly since the accusation about two weeks ago by Peng Shuai that she was sexually assaulted by China’s ex-vice premier Zhang Gaoli.

The first MeToo case to reach the political realm in China has not been reported by the domestic media and online discussion of it has been highly censored.

Steve Simon, the chairman and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, questioned the authenticity of what Chinese state media said was an email intended for him in which Peng says she is safe and that the assault allegation is untrue.

It was posted Thursday by CGTN, the international arm of Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” Simon wrote.

Shuai Peng of China plays a backhand during her Women's Doubles first round match with partner Shuai Zhang of China against Veronika Kudermetova of Russia (Getty Images)
Shuai Peng of China plays a backhand during her Women's Doubles first round match with partner Shuai Zhang of China against Veronika Kudermetova of Russia (Getty Images)

The statement, he added, “only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.”Simon has demanded a full investigation, and the WTA said it is prepared to pull tournaments out of the country if it doesn’t get an appropriate response.

Top players including Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic have spoken out, and the hashtag WhereisPengShuai is trending online.

International Tennis Federation spokeswoman Heather Bowler said the governing body is in contact with the Chinese Tennis Association and is liaising with the WTA and the International Olympic Committee.

“Player safety is always our top priority and we support a full and transparent investigation into this matter,” Bowler wrote in an email.

“While we have not spoken to the player, we are in touch with the national tennis association in China (CTA) in the event they may be able to provide any further information or updates.”

China has largely suppressed a MeToo movement that flourished briefly in 2018 and is forging ahead with the Beijing Winter Olympics in February despite boycott calls by activists and some overseas politicians over China’s human rights record.

Asked repeatedly about the case, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said again on Thursday that he is unaware of it.

Peng, 35, is a former No. 1-ranked player in women’s doubles who won titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.

She wrote in a lengthy social media post on November 2 that Zhang, a former vice premier who was a member of the ruling Communist Party’s top leadership committee, had forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals three years ago.

The post was quickly deleted from her verified account on Weibo, a leading Chinese social media platform, but screenshots of the explosive accusation quickly spread across China’s internet.

Peng Shuai serving during a match at the Australian Open on January 15, 2019 (REUTERS)
Peng Shuai serving during a match at the Australian Open on January 15, 2019 (REUTERS)

She has not appeared in public since then, raising questions about her whereabouts and whether she is being detained.

Zhang, who is 75, dropped from public sight after his retirement in 2018, as is usual for former senior officials.

He is not known to have any close connections to current leaders.Peng‘s accusation is the first high-profile accusation of sexual assault against a powerful politician in China.

Past accusations touched on prominent figures in the non-profit world, academia and media, but never reached the Communist Party’s top officials or state-owned companies.

Her allegation came just three months before Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics, which have been the target of a boycott campaign from multiple human rights organisations largely over China’s repression of Uyghur Muslims.

The games face a possible diplomatic boycott by the United States and other countries.

China has consistently denied any human rights abuses and says its actions are part of counterterrorism programs.

Peng has played in three Olympics. The IOC said Thursday in a statement that, “We have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe.”

Simon’s statement said Peng has displayed incredible courage, but that he is still concerned about her safety.

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