What do we know about Chinese Tennis Star Peng Shuai's Disappearance?

By: Bhrigu Chopra
02 Dec 2021 12:07:47 PM CSMC, Chitkara University, Punjab

The International Olympic Committee told Reuters that their board members had communication with Peng Shuai, the Chinese top tennis player who had allegedly ‘disappeared’ after accusing a ruling party official of sexual assault and that she was seen “safe and sound.”  


The Washington Post was the first to report Peng’s disappearance on November 6, days after she had accused Zhang Gaoli, former Vice-Premier of China and currently a high ranking member of the ruling Communist Party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, of sexual assault at his home “in the presence of his wife and at least one other person.” 


In an emotional post, dated November 2, on Chinese social networking site Weibo, Peng claimed that she and Gaoli had sustained a long but intermittent relationship, which had paused while he served as the vice-premier and refused to contact her. However, as per Peng, he reached out after his retirement, contacting her through a doctor at her former training centre, and invited her to play tennis with him and his wife. 


Peng alleged he coerced her into sex, and later, they rekindled the affair with “complicated” feelings. Then in late October 2021, the pair argued, and Zhang blocked her out, appearing to prompt her Weibo post. Peng also mentioned that very few people knew of her relationship with Zhang.


The Washington Post reported her ‘disappearance’ after she failed to keep her public appearances following the accusations. Several people, including top tennis players like Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, and Novak Djokovic, expressed their concern about Peng’s well-being.


According to the Associated Press, Steve Simon, the head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), says he remains “deeply concerned” about the whereabouts of Peng and her ability to communicate freely, openly and directly”. Simon questioned the authenticity of an email intended for him in which Peng said that she was safe and that the assault allegation was untrue. Peng’s mail seemed influenced by others and has further raised concerns about her welfare. 


The WTA has even threatened to pull its tournaments out of China if the CCP does not arrange a press conference with the tennis star.


The International Olympic Committee, however, doesn’t seem willing to comment much on the issue. Reuters reported that IOC president Thomas Bach held a 30-minute video call with Peng in which she said that she was safe and well at home and wanted her privacy respected for now. 


Reacting to the reports of this call, the WTA said that it does not address or alleviate WTA’s concern about her well-being. In an op-ed on Peng’s disappearance, Gary Potoski, AFP sports editor and WTA board member, wrote: “The IOC seems content to go along with this ridiculous, clumsy ruse, not wanting to do anything to rock the billion-dollar party (the 2022 Winter Olympics) it will be staging in and around Beijing starting in February.” 


Meanwhile, Chinese authorities are attempting to brush the issue under the carpet by imposing heavy restrictions on discussions relating to the case. The Chinese media has also published pictures and videos of Peng making public appearances after the incident. 


According to Reuters, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has said that “certain people” should stop the “malicious hyping” and “politicisation” of the issue. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters that the matter was “not a diplomatic question and I’m not aware of the situation.”


Peng’s accusation is the first high-profile accusation of sexual assault against an influential politician in China. Past accusations named prominent individuals in the non-profit world, academia and media0, but the alleged involvement of a top official of the CCP in a #MeToo case is a first.

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