1:35 PM PST, November 19, 2021
Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, a three-time Olympian who has won titles at Wimbledon and the French Open, has disappeared from public life after accusing a former high-ranking official in the Chinese Communist Party of sexual assault.
Now, the international community, including tennis players like Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, and even the United Nations’ Human Rights office are putting pressure on China, whose officials continue to deny any knowledge of the controversy.
Here’s what we know so far:
Peng’s Last Message on Social Media
On November 2, Peng wrote a post on Chinese social media platform Weibo, where she has more than half-a-million followers, accusing former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault.
She claimed in the now-deleted post that she and Zhang, 75, had been in an on-and-off relationship for several years, and at times, the relationship was consensual, the Wall Street Journal reported.
But she also said there were moments Zhang forced himself on her, beginning with an assault about three years ago, when she was invited to his home to play tennis with him and his wife, CBS Sports reported.
“I was so scared that afternoon,” Peng wrote. “I never gave consent, crying the entire time.”
A guard had stood watch outside the door while she was being assaulted, she said, according to CBS Sports.
“I know that for someone of your stature, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you have said that you are not afraid,” Peng wrote. “But even if it is like throwing an egg against rock, or if I am like a moth drawn to the flame, inviting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you.”
The post disappeared about 20 minutes after she shared it, and Peng’s name has been blocked as a search term on Weibo and other Chinese social media platforms.
Peng has not been seen in public since.
Women’s Tennis Association’s Response
About two weeks later, on November 14, WTA Chairman Steve Simon called for Chinese authorities to investigate Peng’s claims in a statement published by the WTA Tour.
“In all societies, the behavior she alleges that took place needs to be investigated, not condoned or ignored,” the statement read. “We commend Peng Shuai for her remarkable courage and strength in coming forward. Women around the world are finding their voices so injustices can be corrected.”
He also said the organization hadn’t been able to reach Peng following the accusation, the Wall Street Journal reported.
An Email Many Believe Peng Did Not Write
Days later, on November 17, Chinese state-owned television broadcasted a screenshot of an email they claimed Peng sent to Simon, assuring him everything is fine.
“Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai,” the email begins. “The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true. I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.”
Simon, however, responded in a statement that he has doubts about who actually wrote 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 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.”
He continued to reiterate that he has attempted to reach her by many different forms of communication but has not heard from her.
WTA’s Presence in China in Jeopardy
The following day, Simon threatened to pull WTA business out of China unless the country confirmed Peng’s safety and investigated the allegations against Zhang.
“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 Denies Any Controversy
On Friday November 19, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry claimed they were not aware of any concerns surrounding Peng’s well-being or sexual assault claims and said it is “not a diplomatic question and I’m not aware of the situation,” according to the Associated Press.
The United Nations Human Rights Office is now demanding proof of Peng’s well-being.
“What we would say is that it would be important to have proof of her whereabouts and well-being, and we would urge that there be an investigation with full transparency into her allegations of sexual assault,” spokesperson Liz Throssell told reporters Friday, according to CNN. “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. We would stress that it is important to know where she is and know her state, know about her well-being.”
Tennis players and athletes around the world have taken to social media to urge for Peng’s safe return.
The White House has also expressed its concerns about Peng’s disappearance. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Friday, “We are deeply concerned by reports that Peng Shuai appears to be missing after accusing a former PRC (Peoples Republic of China) senior official of sexual assaults. We join in the calls for PRC authorities to provide independent and verifiable proof of her whereabouts and that she is safe,” according to CNN.
And with the Beijing Winter Olympics’ kick-off just months away, it is unclear how Peng’s disappearance will impact the athletic community around the world.
The U.S. is considering a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics in light of other human rights abuses, including its treatment of the Uyghur minority population and its crackdown on free speech and rule of law in Hong Kong, President Joe Biden said Thursday. The boycott would mean government officials will not attend, although athletes will not be barred from competing, according to the New York Times.