American President Joe Biden and the United Nations joined calls to establish the whereabouts of Peng Shuai as pressure grew on China to provide “verifiable proof” of her safety.
Peng has not been seen since she made allegations of sexual misconduct against Zhang Gaoli, a former vice-premier of China, on Nov 2.
Naomi Osaka, Andy Murray and Serena Williams have publicly raised concerns about her safety. Now the US government made a surprising intervention into the case. “We are deeply concerned by reports that Peng Shuai appears to be missing,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “We join in the calls for authorities (in China) to provide independent and verifiable proof of her whereabouts.”
Liz Throssell, the spokesman for the UN Human Rights Office, added: “We would urge that there be an investigation with full transparency into her allegations of sexual assault.”
Beijing authorities had previously released a letter purporting to be from Peng claiming “everything is fine”, which was greeted with universal scepticism.
The Lawn Tennis Association also backed the Women’s Tennis Association following its concerns for Peng and warning that it could pull tournaments out of China.
“We have written to the WTA offering our assistance in their efforts to establish the safety and well-being of Peng Shuai,” an LTA statement read.
A spokesperson for the International Olympic Committee declined to comment, with Beijing hosting the Winter Olympics in February.
Meanwhile, Cameron Norrie’s season ended with a 6-2, 6-1 defeat to Novak Djokovic at the ATP Finals in Turin.
‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ Naomi Osaka censored in China as sport unites to demand answers
Naomi Osaka has been targeted by Chinese government censors after her post calling for the whereabouts of Peng Shuai, who recently alleged sexual misconduct against a retired Communist Party official, was removed.
Searches for her profile on the Weibo microblogging platform were blocked after Ms Osaka spoke out about the former Number One doubles player, though the account remained accessible by going directly through the specific web address.
Leading athletes including Serena Williams and Andy Murray have also spoken out on Ms Peng’s behalf, demanding transparency, posting on Twitter and Western social media websites which are already blocked in China by government censors, dubbed the ‘Great Firewall.’
Official censors – and algorithms – routinely scour and scrub the internet for anything deemed sensitive by the authorities in China, where the government tightly controls all news and information.
Even Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of the Communist Party-backed tabloid Global Times tweeted about “the thing people talked about,” avoiding any direct mention.
“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,” Mr Hu posted on Twitter.
As Twitter is one of the foreign platforms already censored by the Chinese government, his post was directed to an external audience abroad – and even then he chose to be careful how he referred to her allegations, indicating just how sensitive the controversy remains.
On Thursday, WTA chief executive Steve Simon said the women’s tour would consider pulling tournaments worth tens of millions of dollars out of China following the outcry concerning Peng Shuai, with the The Lawn Tennis Association offering its assistance to locate the 35-year-old.
“We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it. Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business. Women need to be respected and not censored” he told CNN in an interview.
China has been a primary focus of the WTA’s expansion over the last decade and hosted nine tournaments in the 2019 season with a total $30.4 million of prize money on offer.
The season-ending WTA Finals had a prize purse of $14 million in 2019 when it was played in Shenzhen for the first time. The Finals were cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and moved this year to Guadalajara, Mexico, but the WTA has said it will return to Shenzhen from 2022 until 2030.
Peng, a two-time major doubles champion, had her own online footprint wiped from Chinese social media minutes after posting her allegations against Zhang Gaoli, one of China’s former top leaders, on Nov 2.
Doubts over veracity of Peng’s email
Wednesday’s bizarre development, when a Chinese state media channel released an email purported to have been sent by Peng retracting all of her claims against the politician, did little to allay concerns about Peng’s welfare and Steve Simon, the Women’s Tennis Association chairman, questioned the email’s authenticity.
In a statement on Wednesday, Simon said he had “a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email”. Speaking on American television on Thursday, Simon doubled down and said: “We definitely want to speak to her directly to make sure she’s OK. She knows we’re here to support her. This is an issue of right and wrong and we have to stand behind this and insist on an investigation.”
Peng, 35, made sexual-assault allegations against 75-year-old Zhang, a former vice-premier in Beijing, in what has been described as the biggest Me Too case to hit China. Peng alleges that she and Zhang had a consensual on-off relationship a decade ago and that, after his retirement from politics in 2018, Zhang had forced her to have sex against her will.
The email retracting these claims, said to have been written by Peng, said the WTA had been spreading false information. “Regarding the recent news released on the official website of the WTA, the content has not been confirmed or verified by myself,” the email claimed. “The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true. I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.”
The WTA has 11 tournaments based in China, and a lucrative long-term deal that gives China hosting rights for the year-end finals. In speaking out against the state, the WTA risks losing that, as the Chinese government has previously shown little tolerance to criticism from sporting bodies aiming to benefit from their huge market.
But the WTA warned on Sunday that unless a full investigation went ahead it could pull its tournaments regardless, and has been praised for its hardened stance since first responding to concerns around Peng’s well-being 11 days after her original Weibo post.
Tennis players unite to demand answers
The Osaka tweet that appears to have resulted in her censorship in China was an expression of her shock at Peng’s disappearance.
“Censorship is never ok at any cost,” Osaka wrote. “I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and ok. I’m in shock of the current situation. #whereispengshuai”
A host of the sport’s biggest names have also joined the calls for answers. Williams, the 23-time major champion, said: “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.”
Laura Robson, the former British No 1, called it “very concerning”. Judy Murray reposted an image of Peng with the trending hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai, while Hong Kong-born British tennis player Tara Moore said it made “no sense”.
“Confused … as the WTA simply just asked if she was safe,” Moore said in a Twitter post. “The reason everyone worried was because of what was posted on Weibo then she promptly wasn’t heard from. This makes no sense, I’m sorry.”
Moore then reshared Peng’s original Weibo post, including the allegations, and said: “Why would she post something like this on Weibo if it was ‘untrue’ and ‘false’. Share Peng Shuai’s story. She cannot be silenced.”
In response to the Peng situation, Andy Murray posted a video of a speech given by the Czech tennis player Barbora Krejčíková, in which she expressed her happiness at the historic downfall of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Murray said it was a reminder and some hope that things can change in the future.