Saturday, July 2, 2022

Peng Shuai situation explained: China pleads ignorance as WTA sounds off on tennis star’s disappearance

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai hasn’t been seen for 17 days and counting. This comes after she accused a former Chinese Communist party leader of sexual assault on Nov. 2. It has created significant concern within the WTA and tennis community over her whereabouts.

The French Open and Wimbledon doubles champion claimed retired Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli forced her into sex three years ago in a since-deleted online post to the Chinese social-media site Weibo. Peng has not been seen since.

The WTA has actively pressured China into confirming Peng’s safety and investigating her allegations, even threatening to pull its lucrative business from the country if those actions aren’t taken.  

Peng’s tennis peers have been equally supportive, with Novak Djokovic calling her disappearance “shocking” and Chris Evert describing the entire situation as “disturbing.” Billie Jean King wrote that she hopes Peng, a former world No. 1, is found safe while Alize Cornet added “Let’s not remain silent” with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai. 

The most prominent women’s tennis player on the planet, Naomi Osaka, tweeted that she is “in shock of the current situation” and is “sending love and light her way.” 

Serena Williams, the sport’s preeminent force long before Osaka, shared the same picture of Peng with an equally concerned sentiment. 

Here’s a chronological look at how the entire situation with Peng has unfolded, beginning on:  

Nov. 2: Peng Shuai makes sexual assault allegations against Zhang

In a 1,600-word post to Weibo, Peng accused the 75-year-old Zhang — a former leader within China’s Communist party — of pressuring her into sex around three years ago. Peng, 35, claimed the assault occurred after Zhang invited her to play tennis with him and his wife at their house, but she admitted she had no evidence. 

“I was so scared that afternoon,” wrote Peng, who claimed a guard stood watch outside the door while the assault occurred. “I never gave consent, crying the entire time.”

Peng said she and Zhang became acquainted with each other while the latter was serving as Tianjin’s party boss from 2007-2012, and Zhang forced her into sex after leaving his post as China’s vice premier in 2017. 

“I know that for someone of your stature, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you have said that you are not afraid,” Peng wrote. “But even if it is like throwing an egg against rock, or if I am like a moth drawn to the flame, inviting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you.”

The post was deleted within 30 minutes, and Chinese censors blocked search terms such as Peng’s name.

Nov. 14: WTA chief executive calls for investigation into situation

Steve Simon, WTA’s chief executive, requested a “full, fair and transparent” investigation into Peng’s allegations in a statement. At that point, no one had seen or heard from Peng for 12 days, prompting the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai to spread across social media. 

“Obviously she displayed tremendous courage going public,” Simon told the New York Times. “Now we want to make sure we’re moving forward to a place where a full and transparent investigation is conducted. Anything else, I think, is an affront to not only our players but to all women.”

Simon threatened to pull the WTA’s business from China if the country failed to properly investigate Peng’s allegations. China currently hosts 11 WTA tournaments and the tour finals in Shenzhen. 

While Simon couldn’t directly confirm Peng’s whereabouts or condition, he told the Times that several sources — including the Chinese Tennis Association — told him that she’s “safe and not under any physical threat.” Simon’s “understanding” was that she was in Beijing. 

Nov. 15: China stays silent on Peng Shuai’s allegations, disappearance

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijan said “this is not a diplomatic question” when asked about Peng’s allegations, adding he had “not heard of the issue.” The country, 13 days after Peng’s post, still had yet to acknowledge it. 

Nov. 17:  WTA questions legitimacy of Peng Shuai statement

An email allegedly sent from Peng on Wednesday claimed the WTA did not get her consent or verification before releasing its statement. It was Peng’s first public comments since her allegations, but some, including the WTA, had questions regarding the legitimacy of the statement. 

“The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true,” the email, which was tweeted out by China state-affiliated media China Global Television Network, read. “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.” 

Simon then openly questioned whether Peng was coerced into writing it. 

“The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” Simon wrote. “Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source.”

Peng has still yet to be seen since her social media post on Nov. 2. 

Nov. 18: Simon, WTA threatens to pull Chinese business

Simon doubled down on his threat to pull the WTA’s business from China, a country his organization has expanded in over the past several years, if it wouldn’t confirm Peng’s safety and investigate her allegations.

“We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it,” Simon told CNN. “Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business.”

“Women need to be respected and not censored,” he added.

China hosted 19 WTA tournaments in 2019 alone for a total of $30.4 million prize money. Shenzhen is slated to host the WTA Finals from 2022-2030 after doing so in 2019 for the first time. The 2019 Finals had a $14 million prize purse. 

Nov. 19: China says it is ‘not aware’ of situation involving Peng Shuai

China’s Foreign Ministry revealed that they weren’t “aware” of the situation surrounding Peng Shuai, according to the Associated Press. Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian informed the media that the matter was “not a diplomatic question” and added that he is “not aware of the situation.”

Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the United Nations human rights office in Geneva, on the other hand, said that the situation called for “an investigation with full transparency into her allegation of sexual assault.”

As of Friday, the International Olympic Committee declined to comment on the matter.

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