The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Women’s Tennis Association threatens to pull out of China over star player’s disappearance

China’s state media published an email on Nov. 17 it says is from tennis player Peng Shuai, who hasn't been seen in public since she made sexual assault claims. (Video: Reuters)
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The head of the Women’s Tennis Association said the organization is willing to pull out of China, potentially losing hundreds of millions of dollars, if sexual assault allegations made by star tennis player Peng Shuai against a senior Chinese official are not properly investigated.

Peng, 35, one of China’s most popular sports figures and a two-time Grand Slam champion in doubles, has not been seen in public for over two weeks after she shared a post online accusing former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into having sex with him.

WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon, who has expressed concern for Peng’s safety and called for a full investigation into the claims, told CNN on Thursday: “We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it.”

Simon’s remarks come as a chorus grows around the world calling for more transparency and information on Peng’s whereabouts. On Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration joins “in the calls for [Chinese] authorities to provide independent, verifiable proof of [Peng’s] whereabouts and that she is safe. . . . We support a woman’s ability to speak out and seek accountability, whether here or around the world.”

President Biden on Thursday said the administration is “considering” a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, in which government officials would abstain from attending the Games but athletes would still compete.

Biden says U.S. ‘considering’ diplomatic boycott of Winter Olympics in China

On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called U.S. allegations of mass repression of minorities in Xinjiang, the main impetus behind calls for the boycott, “a joke to Chinese people.”

“Politicizing sports is against the Olympic spirit and harms the interests of athletes from all countries,” he said.

Peng, who in 2014 became the first Chinese tennis player to be ranked No. 1 in doubles in the WTA, has competed in three Olympic Games. On Thursday, the International Olympic Committee took a different approach from the WTA and said in a statement that it had “seen the latest reports” regarding Peng and was “encouraged by assurances that she is safe.”

The post on Peng’s official Weibo profile on Nov. 2 marked the most high-profile #MeToo allegation in China, where authorities have squashed the grass-roots movement, as well as an unprecedented public accusation against a top Chinese official. The post, whose authenticity could not be independently verified by The Washington Post, was removed within half an hour, and all discussion of Peng has since been censored.

China has maintained silence over Peng’s case. Asked about her on Thursday, spokesman Zhao said he was “not aware” of the case, according to the Associated Press. The exchange was not included in the ministry’s official summary of the briefing released later.

On Friday, Hu Xijin, the editor of the state-run Global Times, posted on Twitter — a platform that is blocked in China but used by Chinese diplomats and state media to target international audiences — that he did not believe Peng had “received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for the thing people talked about.”

Yet the case continues to garner international attention, with the United Nations Human Rights Office calling Friday for “an investigation with full transparency.” Tennis stars including Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Billie Jean King have been posting under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai, pleading for Peng’s whereabouts to be accounted for. A statement purportedly by Peng, released by the state-run China Global Television Network on Wednesday, only added fuel to concerns over the tennis player’s safety.

“I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine,” read the message, which CGTN said was sent by email to Simon. The WTA issued a statement in response, with Simon saying that he had a “hard time believing that Peng actually wrote the email” or “believes what is being attributed to her.”

Observers warned that Peng’s statement — a reminder of previous cases where, following international outcry, disappeared residents re-emerged on camera to say that they were fine — should not be taken at face value.

“The Chinese government has a long history of arbitrarily detaining people involved in controversial cases, controlling their ability to speak freely, and making them give forced statements,” said William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator for the nonprofit Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

In the post published on Peng’s account, Peng said that three years ago, Zhang and his wife invited her to their home for a meal; there, Zhang coerced an unwilling Peng into having sex with him and the two entered into a long-term affair. Zhang, who is four decades older than her, was China’s vice premier from 2013 until 2018 when he retired.

“That afternoon I didn’t agree at first and kept crying,” the post said, adding, “I know I can’t say it all clearly, and that there’s no use in saying it. But I still want to say it.”

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

WTA calls for investigation of Chinese tennis player’s sexual assault allegations against senior official

WTA calls for Chinese star Peng Shuai’s safety, casts doubt over her purported statement