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A Chinese Tennis Star Accused a Top Official of Sexual Assault. Then She Disappeared.

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Tennis stars are demanding answers about Peng Shuai, whose disappearance has again underscored China’s brutal authoritarianism just months before it hosts the Winter Olympics.

Posted on November 19, 2021, at 4:01 p.m. ET

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Xinhua News Agency / Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images

Peng Shuai at the Australian Open in January 2020

The message was only online for a few minutes, but its shock waves have reverberated around the world.

“I was so scared that afternoon,” tennis player Peng Shuai wrote in her Nov. 2 message on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. “I never gave consent, crying the entire time.”

Peng, a former world No. 1-ranked doubles player who has won championships at Wimbledon and the French Open, said she was sexually assaulted by one of the Chinese Communist Party’s most prominent people: Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China and previous member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee.

The 35-year-old tennis star said Zhang, 75, had raped her several years ago. They later had an on-again, off-again consensual relationship, she said.

“I feel like a walking corpse,” Peng wrote.

Her allegation of sexual assault — which, as Peng acknowledged in her post, has not been independently corroborated by others — was the first to be raised publicly against someone who had been so senior in China’s government.

The post was swiftly taken down by Chinese censors, with even searches for her name blocked in China.

She has not been seen in public since.

The disappearance of one of China’s top athletes just months before the country is due to host the Winter Olympics has again shone a light on the country’s brutal authoritarianism and repressive human rights record.

On Friday, the United Nations human rights office told reporters it wanted proof of her “whereabouts and wellbeing.”

Top tennis stars have since rallied to Peng’s cause, flooding social media with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.

“I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai,” Serena Williams wrote Thursday. “I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.”

“Censorship is never OK at any cost,” Naomi Osaka wrote Tuesday.

Amid growing international attention on her plight, Chinese state media on Thursday suddenly released an email it said Peng had written to Women’s Tennis Association Chair Steve Simon.

The letter, the authenticity of which could not be verified, claimed Peng was resting at home and had never authorized for the original “not true” statement to be posted on Weibo.

But in a statement on Thursday, Simon said the purported Peng letter only made him more fearful for her safety.

“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” of her safety and a full investigation into her claims.

“Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source,” Simon said. “Her allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship.”

Simon told CNN the WTA was prepared to no longer do business with China, and thus lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, if Peng was not accounted for.

“This is bigger than the business,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Women’s Sports Foundation, a US nonprofit founded in 1974 by tennis legend Billie Jean King, told BuzzFeed News they supported the WTA’s position.

“We are deeply concerned and troubled by the disappearance of Peng Shuai and her allegation of sexual assault,” the spokesperson said. “We support the WTA’s demands for verifiable proof of her safety and that her allegations be respected and investigated with full transparency.”

But the letter was apparently enough for the International Olympic Committee, which has been mostly quiet on the disappearance of a three-time Olympian.

“We have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe,” an IOC spokesperson said Thursday.

That tepid statement was criticized as feckless by broad swaths of the Western media and nongovernmental organizations.

South China Morning Post / South China Morning Post via Getty Images

Zhang Gaoli, then Chinese vice premier, making a speech in Beijing in May 2017.

The international advocacy group Human Rights Watch also shamed the IOC for what it said was an “endorsement” of the Chinese government’s “line.”

“It’s astonishing that the IOC would accept the government’s assurances, particularly at the expense of a female Olympian making grave allegations,” said Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch’s director of global initiatives.

The group urged athletes, sports fans, and sponsors of the Winter Games to speak out about human rights in China.

“The Olympics are supposed to be a celebration of humanity, not an opportunity to mistreat athletes and sportswash crimes against humanity,” Worden said.

After a virtual meeting on Monday with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Joe Biden said this week he was considering a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Games.

Amnesty International also said it was deeply concerned for Peng given China’s track record of squashing dissent.

“Peng’s recent so-called statement that ‘everything is fine’ should not be taken at face value as China’s state media has a track record of forcing statements out of individuals under duress, or else simply fabricating them,” said Amnesty International China researcher Doriane Lau. “These concerns will not go away unless Peng’s safety and whereabouts are confirmed.”

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