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Explainer: Who is missing Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai and what allegations did she make?

Peng, a former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion, has not been heard from for two weeks.

Peng Shuai
Peng Shuai
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

A CHINESE TENNIS star is at the centre of growing concern after she alleged earlier this month that a powerful Chinese politician sexually assaulted her.

35-year-old Peng Shuai, a former world number one in doubles, has not been seen since.

It was the first time that the #MeToo movement has struck at the top echelons of China’s ruling Communist Party.

So, let’s take a look at who Peng Shuai is, what the allegations are and what else we know so far about her disappearance. 

Who is Peng Shuai? 

Peng is one of China’s biggest sports stars, winning the women’s doubles at Wimbledon in 2013 alongside Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-wei for her first Grand Slam title.

A second followed at the French Open in 2014 – again with her long-time friend Hsieh – and Peng spent 20 weeks that year ranked number one in doubles.

She also enjoyed her best Grand Slam singles run in 2014, reaching the semi-finals of the US Open.

She has won 23 WTA doubles and two singles titles, earning prize money of nearly $10 million.

Peng is currently ranked 191st in the world in doubles and has not been seen on the WTA Tour since the Qatar Open in February 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic shut down global tennis for almost five months.

She was in August 2018 banned from tennis for six months and fined $10,000 for attempting to force Hsieh to withdraw as her doubles partner for Wimbledon 2017 after the sign-in deadline.

What allegations did she make?

On 2 November, Peng appears to have posted on China’s Twitter-like Weibo damaging claims about former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli in which she alleged that he had coerced her into sex during a long-time on-off relationship.

There has been no response from Zhang, who is in his 70s.

Was her post censored?

Peng’s post was soon deleted, but not before social media users took screenshots.

Those were censored on China’s heavily vetted Internet and still are.

But Peng’s allegation was posted to Twitter – which is banned in China – allowing it to reach a worldwide audience.

Peng still comes up on search results online in China, but her allegations do not, and searches for her and Zhang together also show up nothing.

What has the global reaction been? 

There has widespread condemnation of the censorship of Peng’s posts and her apparent disappearance. 

On Twitter, #WhereIsPengShuai has gained traction, with tennis players past and present using the hashtag to voice concern for her.

Four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka wrote that she was “in shock”.

Men’s world number one Novak Djokovic told reporters: “Honestly, it’s shocking that she’s missing.”

How has the tennis world reacted?

On Sunday, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) called for Peng’s allegations to “be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship”.

“The recent events in China concerning a WTA player, Peng Shuai, are of deep concern,” said WTA chairman Steve Simon in a statement.

“As an organisation dedicated to women, we remain committed to the principles we were founded on – equality, opportunity and respect.

“Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored. Her accusation about the conduct of a former Chinese leader involving a sexual assault must be treated with the utmost seriousness.

He added: “We expect this issue to be handled properly, meaning the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship.

“Our absolute and unwavering priority is the health and safety of our players. We are speaking out so justice can be done.”

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China’s tennis association did not reply to requests from AFP for comment and the foreign ministry also declined to comment.

What’s the latest? 

There was a new twist in the saga yesterday when China’s state-run CGTN published a screenshot on Twitter of what it said was an email from Peng to the WTA in which she purportedly claims that her accusations were “not true” and she is “resting at home and everything is fine”.

But doubts were quickly raised about the awkward language and a cursor visible in the screenshot.

In a statement today, WTA chief Steve Simon said that “the statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts”.

“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” he said.

He called for “independent and verifiable proof that she is safe”.

“I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail,” said Simon, adding that Peng “must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation”.

Includes reporting by  © AFP 2021

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