Peng Shuai: What do we know about Chinese tennis star at center of international storm?
China is facing pressure to provide assurances on the safety of women’s tennis star Peng Shuai, who is said to have disappeared after accusing a former government official of sexual assault. Here’s what we know.
WHO IS PENG SHUAI?
Peng Shuai is one of China’s most recognizable sports stars. She became the first Chinese player ever to achieve a world number one ranking when she rose to the summit of the doubles ratings in 2014.
The 35-year-old has two Grand Slam women’s doubles titles to her name – at Wimbledon in 2013 and at the French Open in 2014.
In the singles, Peng reached a career-high ranking of world number 14 back in 2011. Her best singles performance at a Grand Slam was her run to the semi-finals of the US Open in 2014.
Peng has 25 WTA titles to her name – 23 of which came in doubles events – and has racked up prize money of almost $10 million. She is also a three-time Olympian.
Peng’s current singles ranking is world number 306, and she last appeared on the WTA tour at the Qatar Open back in February of 2020.
WHAT ARE THE ACCUSATIONS?
In a lengthy post on Peng’s account on Chinese social media platform Weibo, she appeared to accuse former high-ranking Communist official Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault.
The message was posted on November 2 but was reportedly taken down less than half an hour later. Peng’s name is subsequently said to have been heavily censored on the Chinese web.
Translated versions of the post remain on social media outside of China. In the message, Peng accuses the married Zhang of forcing her into sex after he invited her to his house around three years ago. His wife was said to be at home at the time.
“That afternoon I didn't give my consent and couldn’t stop crying,” Peng wrote. “You brought me to your house and forced me and you to have relations.”
The message says that the pair also had an on-off consensual relationship which had begun years previously, but that Zhang had then gone silent before initiating contact again.
Peng admitted that she did not have evidence to back up the claims.
Zhang, who is now 75 and retired, was a powerful figure in the Communist Party. He served as vice-premier between 2013 and 2018, and was also on the influential Politburo Standing Committee between 2012 and 2017.
WHY IS THE WTA CONCERNED?
Peng’s silence since the accusations surfaced has raised concern from the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).
In an initial statement, the WTA said the accusations by Peng “must be treated with the utmost seriousness.”
WTA chairman and chief executive Steve Simon later claimed the organization had been told by the Chinese Tennis Association that Peng “is safe and not under any physical threat.”
“My understanding is that she is in Beijing, but I can’t confirm that because I haven’t spoken directly with her,” Simon added.
However, the situation took a turn when Chinese media shared a purported email from Peng to the WTA, in which it was claimed she was not missing and that the allegations against Zhang were untrue.
“I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me,” read the message.
WTA boss Simon said he had “a hard time believing” the email had actually been written by Peng. It also appeared to be a screenshot with a cursor still visible.
HOW FAR IS THE WTA PREPARED TO GO?
The WTA has since stepped up its calls for guarantees that Peng is safe and well.
Simon told media outlets on Thursday that the organization was willing to pull out of business agreements with China, potentially at risk of losing millions of dollars.
“We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it,” said the WTA chief.
“Because this is certainly bigger than the business. Women need to be respected and not censored.”
Simon added: “At this point I don’t think there’s any validity in [the email] and we won’t be comfortable until we have a chance to speak with her.”
That stance comes in stark contrast to the likes of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has thus fan declined to comment – perhaps mindful that China is preparing to host the Winter Games in Beijing in February.
“Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature,” and IOC spokesperson said.
In the past, other sporting organizations such as the NBA have tended to tread carefully where political and social issues involving China are concerned. That likely stems from a fear of potentially being forced out of a lucrative mass market.
The WTA, however, this time looks to be pushing much further – albeit in a case involving a specific individual, rather than state policy.
WHAT HAS THE CHINESE RESPONSE BEEN?
Peng’s presence on the internet has reportedly been heavily censored in light of the allegations, with search terms of her name blocked.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been no public response from Zhang about the accusations against him.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters that the matter was “not a diplomatic question and I’m not aware of this situation.”
Elsewhere, the editor-in-chief at China’s Global Times – a state-backed outlet – suggested that the situation was being exaggerated by the foreign media.
As a person who is familiar with Chinese system, I don’t believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for the thing people talked about.— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) November 18, 2021
“As a person who is familiar with Chinese system, I don’t believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for the thing people talked about,” tweeted Hu Xijin.
Responding to the WTA’s latest warnings, Hu wrote: “Perhaps you did it out of goodwill. But you should understand China, including understanding how the system you dislike has promoted the actual rights of the 1.4 billion Chinese.
“Don’t use a coercive tone when expressing any concern to China.”
Perhaps you did it out of goodwill. But you should understand China, including understanding how the system you dislike has promoted the actual rights of the 1.4 billion Chinese. Don't use a coercive tone when expressing any concern to China. https://t.co/WqXbzulvXw— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) November 19, 2021
Peng is far from the first high-profile figure to apparently go missing in China – even billionaire Alibaba businessman Jack Ma did so for several months before resurfacing earlier this year.
It has been suggested by some Chinese policy experts that Peng will also return to public view in time.
HOW HAVE TENNIS STARS REACTED?
In the meantime, prominent tennis figures continue to add their weight to calls for China to prove Peng’s safety.
American great Serena Williams issued a social media message in which she aired her concerns, following the likes of four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka.
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. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent. Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time. #whereispengshuaipic.twitter.com/GZG3zLTSC6— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) November 18, 2021
The hashtag ‘Where Is Peng Shuai’ has been widely used. In the men’s game, 20-time Grand Slam winner Novak Djokovic called the situation “shocking.”
However, some have thus far avoided weighing in, including British US Open champion Emma Raducanu.
The 19-year-old has a Chinese mother and has previously issued messages of thanks to her supporters in Mandarin.
However, Raducanu’s social media accounts had not made reference to Peng’s case as of Friday afternoon.
Men’s greats Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have also not yet commented.