By Uyen Nguyen — Correspondent
Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis star, went missing for 18 days after accusing former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault on November 2, 2021. When Peng reappeared, she denied making any allegations.
In her post on Weibo, China’s social media platform, Peng said Zhang assaulted her three years ago with details about their relationship. Authorities deleted her post in less than 30 minutes, suppressing any mention or discussion of the matter. The name Peng Shuai was censored across all Chinese social media platforms and search engines.
Since then, Peng has disappeared. Numerous Chinese feminists and international athletes used the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai on Twitter to raise concern over her disappearance.
Serena Williams, a famed American tennis player, said she is devastated to hear about the disappearance of Peng Shuai in her post on Twitter. “I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent,” Williams said.
Former World No.1 tennis player, Chris Evert said the accusations are very disturbing. “I’ve known Peng since she was 14; we should all be concerned; this is serious; where is she? Is she safe? Any information would be appreciated,” Evert said in her post.
The safety of Peng Shuai made the front page of global news, yet suppressed at home. Neither the Chinese government nor Zhang made any public statements to deal with the situation.
Senior Ruemon Bhattacharyya said there is a significant gender difference in sports. “I think if this was a male tennis player who disappeared or was assaulted, it would be tackled far more aggressively,” Bhattacharyya said.
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Chairman Steve Simon has demanded a full investigation into Peng’s allegation. Simon said the WTA received confirmations from the Chinese Tennis Association that Peng is under no threat nor physical harm. But, no one of the WTA could contact Peng directly.
“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,” Simon said.
Peng reappeared in public on Nov. 20 when she attended the Junior Tennis Finals in Beijing. She later confirmed her safety in a video call with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach later in the day. But, Peng would like her privacy respected.
Global Athlete, an international athlete-led movement, released a statement responding to the IOC President video call with Peng. “By taking a nonchalant approach to Peng Shuai’s disappearance and by refusing to mention her serious allegations of sexual assault, IOC President Thomas Bach and the IOC Athletes’ Commission demonstrate an abhorrent indifference to sexual violence and the well-being of female athletes,” the Global Athlete said in their statement.
The WTA suspended all tournaments in China the following day over concerns about the treatment of Peng Shuai and the safety of other athletes.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, said the WTA’s decision is forcing Peng to go against her country. “WTA is coercing Peng Shuai to support the West’s attack on the Chinese system. They are depriving Peng Shuai’s freedom of expression, demanding that her description of her current situation must meet their expectation,” Hu said in his post.
David Bandurski, Director of the China Media Project, said it is an extremely sensitive issue for the Chinese leadership. “I think [it’s] probably one of the most sensitive news stories that’s happened in the last decade… Fundamentally, this is about protecting the political system in China — this is the only body that’s of concern. It’s not about the personal safety of Peng Shuai, or her rights as an individual, as a woman, as a citizen.” Bandurski said.
“The WTA really did not contribute to helping the Peng Shuai situation and because of the elusive Chinese government in general the situation was not tackled well. I do agree with the WTA’s decision to suspend tournaments in China while investigations continue,” Bhattacharyya said.
In an interview with Lianhe Zaobao, Singaporean Chinese-language news, on Dec. 19, Peng claims that her post on Weibo is a misunderstanding. “First and foremost, I must emphasize. I have never said or written about anyone sexually assaulting me. That’s a very important point. On the Weibo post, that’s my personal issue,” Peng said.
The contradiction between Peng’s statement and the original post and her subsequent disappearance has raised concerns that Peng was coerced into fabricating her story.
“We could talk here about a two-pronged strategy, about how China has enforced complete silence at home while pushing a narrative externally about meddling journalists and the politicizing of sport,” Bandurski said.
“Fundamentally, this is about protecting the political system in China — this is the only body that’s of concern,” he added. “It’s not about the personal safety of Peng Shuai, or her rights as an individual, as a woman, as a citizen.”