The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Peng Shuai reappears on China’s censored Internet amid silence over sexual assault claims

China's Peng Shuai at the Australian Open in Melbourne in 2019. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

After an international outcry over her disappearance, tennis player Peng Shuai has officially reappeared in China — but with silence surrounding her sexual assault allegations against a senior government official.

Over the weekend, Peng began reappearing in a carefully curated way on the Chinese Internet, after blanket censorship of news about her since Nov. 2, when she alleged in a social media post that she was sexually assaulted by China’s former vice premier Zhang Gaoli.

China’s Foreign Ministry also reversed course on Monday and confirmed that Peng had attended public events recently, after maintaining for three weeks that it was not aware of the situation.

A tournament organized by China Open posted photos on Nov. 21 of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, whose whereabouts have been a matter of international concern. (Video: Reuters)

IOC says President Thomas Bach had video call with missing tennis player Peng Shuai

News of the controversy remains almost universally censored within China. A rare exception was a Chinese-language statement posted by the French Embassy in China on the social network Weibo on Monday, which expressed concern for Peng and called on China to uphold its pledge to combat violence against women.

“We express our concern over the lack of information regarding tennis player Peng Shuai’s situation,” the French Embassy statement said.

The embassy called Peng a “tennis athlete who rose to prominence due to the French Open.” Peng and her partner won a women’s doubles title at the French Open in 2014 and at Wimbledon in 2013.

The tennis star’s reemergence came after heavy international pressure and seemed aimed primarily at assuaging outrage from prominent overseas sports authorities and fellow players concerned about her safety. Chinese state media outlets used Twitter, which is blocked in China, to announce that Peng was free and doing well, with photos and video of her at a restaurant and a youth tennis event.

She also spoke by video on Sunday to International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, though the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) said that did not alleviate concerns about her well-being and her ability to communicate without censorship or coercion.

Notably absent from these official appearances has been any mention of her sexual assault allegations against Zhang, the retired senior official, who has maintained a public silence. China’s State Council Information Office did not reply on Monday to a faxed question about whether Chinese prosecutors would investigate her allegations and has not responded to requests to make Zhang available for interview.

Several other prominent #MeToo cases in China’s business and academic circles have resulted in police investigations and trials. But Peng’s allegations are the first against such a high-level official in China, and it’s unclear how Beijing will respond.

Within China, Peng’s return has been cryptic, with nearly all mention of her allegations against Zhang remaining under official blackout. Some photos of her surfaced without explanation on domestic websites over the weekend, such as the China Open posting close-up shots of Peng at a youth tennis event without mentioning her name.

On Monday, it remained impossible to post a message on Weibo containing both Peng’s and Zhang’s names, with a pop-up message saying the operation was not possible because it was “a violation of relevant laws and regulations.”

Olympics official warns that Peng Shuai case ‘may spin out of control’ as images of tennis star raise questions

While searches for Peng’s name returned no hits on Chinese social media platforms earlier this month in the wake of her allegations, some older state-media articles about her could be found on Monday, with the comments sections disabled.

In some corners of the Chinese Internet, users made cautious comments about her return on Monday.

“Hope that a thorough investigation will give the people an explanation,” one reader remarked.

Outside of China, there have been increasingly loud calls for proof of her safety, with an Olympics official telling Reuters that it could affect the Beijing Winter Olympics scheduled to take place in February. WTA Chairman Steve Simon said Thursday that the organization is willing to pull out of China, potentially losing hundreds of millions of dollars, if Peng’s allegations are not properly investigated.

Tennis stars such as Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka have called for information about her well-being. A rally to raise awareness about Peng was held in a New York City park on Sunday afternoon.

Alicia Chen in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

IOC says President Thomas Bach had video call with missing tennis player Peng Shuai

Olympics official warns that Peng Shuai case ‘may spin out of control’ as images of tennis star raise questions

Chinese tennis star’s sexual assault allegation against former top leader prompts online blackout