China's Peng Shuai incommunicado after #MeToo allegations amid fears for her safety

The tennis star had reported being pressured into an affair with a former vice premier.
By Xue Xiaoshan
2021.11.16
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China's Peng Shuai incommunicado after #MeToo allegations amid fears for her safety Chinese tennis start Peng Shuai is shown at a women's singles match at Wimbledon in a file photo.
AFP

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai is incommunicado since she accused a former ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader of pressuring her into a sexual relationship, raising concerns about her personal safety, Chinese feminist campaigners and international sports associations said.

"Peng Shuai has vanished from the public eye ever since she came forward and made her claims," the Free Chinese Feminists Twitter account said. "#Metoo activists are deeply concerned about her safety."

The tweet, which used the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai, was accompanied by a photo of a slogan being projected onto an outside wall. "We demand Peng Shuai's safe return," the slogan said.

The U.S.-based Women's Tennis Association (WTA) said it was deeply concerned for Peng's health and safety.

"The recent events in China concerning a WTA player, Peng Shuai, are of deep concern. As an organization dedicated to women, we remain committed to the principles we were founded on - equality, opportunity and respect," WTA chairman Steve Simon said in a statement on the association's website.

"Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored," he said, calling for her allegations to be taken "with the utmost seriousness."

"We expect this issue to be handled properly, meaning the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship," Simon said. "We are speaking out so justice can be done."

The group has since reportedly received "assurances" that Peng is safe and well.

In a Nov. 2 post to Chinese social media, Peng said former vice premier Zhang Gaoli had pressured her into sex when she was 19, and later pursued her to restart the extramarital affair after he finished his 10-year stint serving on the CCP's Politburo standing committee, the most powerful decision-making body in the Chinese government.

Peng said she had felt pressured into restarting the affair, before describing some positive feelings towards Zhang, and later detailing humiliation, mostly from Zhang's wife, and a sense of social isolation caused by being made to keep the affair secret.

While screenshots of her lengthy post circulated internationally, Peng's original post was soon deleted. Commentators said the fact that it referenced a former Politburo standing committee member would likely send shockwaves through the corridors of Zhongnanhai, the seat of the CCP regime.

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) also expressed concerns for Peng's safety.

"We have been deeply concerned by the uncertainty surrounding the immediate safety and whereabouts of WTA player Peng Shuai," chairman Andrea Gaudenzi said.

"We are encouraged by the recent assurances received by WTA that she is safe and accounted for and will continue to monitor the situation closely."

The statement also called for a full, fair, and transparent investigation into "allegations of sexual assault carried out against Peng Shuai."

Former women's tennis No. 1 Chris Evert tweeted: "Yes, these accusations are very disturbing. I’ve known Peng since she was 14; we should all be concerned; this is serious; where is she? Is she safe? Any information would be appreciated."

Chinese human rights defender and art curator Xiang Li said the concerns for Peng come amid growing international calls for a boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in February.

"It's kind of a landmark, for the WTA to speak out like that, out of solidarity for women and in support of victims," Xiang told RFA. "At the very least, it sends the message to the international community that sports associations ... can come to the aid of Chinese citizens."

'A kind of social death'

Xiang said Peng's incommunicado status could only happen in a totalitarian country like China.

"If something like this happened in a democratic country, journalists, everyone would be looking for her, and yet Peng Shuai has disappeared," she said. "It's a very Chinese kind of social death."

While Steve Simon later told the New York Times that he had been told by several sources that Peng is safe and in Beijing, nobody has yet managed to get in touch with  her.

Former People's Daily sports editor Wang Dazhao said he hasn't heard anyone in his social circle even discuss Peng.

"I haven't heard anybody so much as talk about her from [the day she posted], and nobody is inquiring about her," he said. 

Sports Illustrated called in an editorial for the WTA to consider withdrawing from China altogether.

"If the WTA has terms beyond the mercenary, it must demand transparency and action," the article said. "And be prepared to get out, to stop doing business in a country so unaligned with its purported mission."

China's #MeToo movement made headlines in 2018, when Beihang University fired a professor, Chen Xiaowu, after he was publicly accused by his former PhD candidate Luo Xixi on social media of sexual harassment and assault.

Luo's #MeToo whistleblowing was among the first to make headline news in China, and Chen's dismissal represented an "initial victory" for Chinese women, she has said.

Southern Metropolis Daily founder Cheng Yizhong said Peng's alleged affair with Zhang would have taken place in an atmosphere that worships power and money around the CCP elite.

Zhang, now 75, served as vice premier between 2013 and 2018 and was a member of the Politburo standing committee between 2012 and 2017.

Peng was the world No.1 doubles player in 2014 after taking doubles titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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