A simple question has gripped the sports world and caught the attention of the White House, the United Nations and others:
Where is Peng Shuai?
The Chinese tennis star has disappeared from public view for weeks this month after accusing a top Chinese leader of sexual assault, sparking a worldwide chorus of concern for his safety. Then over the weekend, the editor of a Communist Party-controlled newspaper posted video clips that appear to show Ms. Peng eating at a restaurant and attending a tennis event in Beijing. And on Sunday, the International Olympic Committee said its president spoke to it on a video call.
A representative of the Women’s Tennis Association said it was “good to see” Ms Peng in recent videos, but added that the organization remained concerned about her ability to communicate freely. China’s authoritarian government has long treated with an iron fist those who threaten to undermine public confidence in the party’s top leaders.
With just a few months before Beijing hosts the 2022 Winter Olympics, Ms Peng’s situation could become another point of tension in China’s increasingly difficult relationship with the rest of the world.
Who is Ms. Peng?
Peng Shuai, 35 – her last name is pronounced “pung” and the end of her first name rhymes with “why” – is a three-time Olympian whose tennis career began more than two decades ago.
In February 2014, after winning the doubles crown at Wimbledon with Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-wei the year before, Ms. Peng rose to the rank of world No. 1 in doubles, the first Chinese player, male or female, to reach the first rank. in singles or doubles. She and Ms. Hsieh also won the Roland Garros doubles title in 2014.
Her doubles career saw a resurgence in 2016 and 2017. But in 2018, she was banned from professional gambling for six months, with a three-month suspension, after attempting to use “coercion” and financial incentives to change it. Wimbledon doubles its partner after the registration deadline. She has not competed professionally since early 2020.
Why did she disappear?
Late on the evening of November 2, Ms. Peng posted a lengthy note on the Chinese social platform Weibo that exploded on the Chinese internet.
In the post, she accused Zhang Gaoli, 75, a former deputy prime minister, of inviting her to his home about three years ago and forcing her to have sex. âThat afternoon I didn’t consent at first,â she wrote. “I cried all the time.”
She and Mr. Zhang began a consensual, albeit confrontational, relationship after that, she wrote. Mr. Zhang served from 2012 to 2017 on China’s highest governing body, the Politburo Standing Committee.
Within minutes, censors wiped Ms. Peng’s account from the Chinese internet. A digital blackout on his charges has since been in place.
Women in China who present themselves as victims of sexual assault and predation have long faced censorship and repression. But Ms. Peng’s account, which has not been corroborated, is the first to implicate such a high-level Communist Party leader, which may explain why the authorities have been extremely diligent in silencing any discussion of the case, at any given time even blocking online searches for the word “tennis”.
How did the world react?
Censors might have succeeded if Steve Simon, head of the Women’s Tennis Association, had not spoken out on November 14, calling on Beijing to investigate Ms Peng’s accusations and stop trying to bury her case.
Confronting China had significant consequences for other sports organizations. But Mr Simon told CNN that the WTA was ready to withdraw its activities from China on the matter.
Other tennis luminaries – so far the list includes Naomi Osaka, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal and Billie Jean King – have come out in favor of Ms Peng. Spanish football star Gerard pique posted with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai to his 20 million Twitter followers.
The Biden administration and the United Nations human rights office have joined calls in Beijing to provide proof of Ms. Peng’s well-being.
On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal published an essay by Enes Kanter, a Boston Celtics center, in which he called for the Beijing Winter Games to be moved. Mr. Kanter has been a vocal critic of the Chinese government, attacking its policies by Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The streaming partner of the National Basketball Association in China removed Celtics games from its platform last month after it began posting its reviews on social media.
âNot all gold medals in the world are worth selling your values ââand principles to the Chinese Communist Party,â Kanter wrote in The Journal.
The International Olympic Committee has hinted that it is engaging in “quiet diplomacy” to unravel the situation. And on Sunday, the committee said its chairman, Thomas Bach, spoke with Ms Peng for half an hour that day via video. She told Mr. Bach and two other IOC officials that “she is safe and well, that she lives at her home in Beijing, but would like her privacy to be respected,” the committee said. A photo of Ms. Peng smiling on a big screen in front of Mr. Bach appeared alongside the committee’s announcement.
After the committee shared the news, the WTA reiterated its call for a “full, fair and transparent investigation” into Ms. Peng’s sexual assault allegations.
What did China say?
Nothing. Not officially, at least.
Instead, Chinese state-run news agencies and their employees have been the only quasi-official voices in the country to speak. They do this in particular on Twitter, which is blocked in China. Their posts seem to be aimed specifically at persuading the world at large.
First, a Chinese state broadcaster posted an email on Twitter, written in English and attributed to Ms. Peng, who denied the assault charge and said she was “resting at home.” Mr Simon dismissed the email as crude fabrication and said it only deepened his concerns for the tennis star’s safety.
Next, Hu Xijin, editor of the state-controlled newspaper Global Times, began sharing videos that appear to show Ms. Peng with her 450,000 Twitter followers.
At Mr. Hu first Twitter comments on the subject, he said he did not believe Ms. Peng was being punished “for the thing people were talking about,” refusing even to specify the nature of her charges.
On Saturday, Mr. Hu posted two video clips that he said he âacquiredâ.
In one clip, a man speaks with a woman who appears to be Ms. Peng at a restaurant when he refers to “tomorrow” as November 20. Another woman at the table corrects him by saying that tomorrow is the 21st. Ms. Peng nods.
The man appears to be Zhang Junhui, an executive from the China Open tennis tournament.
Mr. Hu posted another clip on Sunday, which he said was shot by a Global Times employee, which shows Ms. Peng at the opening ceremony of a tennis event in Beijing. Zhang Junhui appears to be standing to Ms. Peng’s right.
The China Open posted photos from the same event on its Weibo account on Sunday. The photos show Ms. Peng waving to the crowd and dedicating tennis balls, though the post does not name her.
Mr. Hu hasn’t shared any of these videos on Weibo, where he has 24 million followers.
In a statement, WTA’s Mr Simon said the clips alone were “insufficient” to prove Ms Peng was not facing coercion.
âOur relationship with China is at a crossroads,â he said.