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Tennis Star Peng Shuai Disappears After Sexual Abuse Accusations Against Ex-Chinese Official—And Top Stars Begin Speaking Out

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Amid the final stretches of season-ending tennis championships, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and a growing number of tennis stars are voicing concern about the disappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai from public view since she accused former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault on a Chinese social media post that has since been removed.

Key Facts

According to the November 2 post, Zhang, 75, who used to be one of the seven members of the most powerful body of the Communist party, allegedly forced Peng to have sex with him three years ago.

Peng, 35, who has won more than 20 doubles and two singles events, has disappeared from public view since she made the accusation, and the Guardian reports the comments feature on her Weibo social media account, where she posted the sexual assault allegations, has been disabled. 

No. 1 men’s player Novak Djokovic, said Monday at the Nitto ATP Finals he was “shocked” to learn Peng was missing, Eurosport reports. 

Chris Evert, the American tennis legend who won 18 Grand Slams, said on Twitter the accusations were “very disturbing” and “we should all be concerned; this is serious; where is she?”

French player Alize Cornet tweeted “Let’s not remain silent. #WhereIsPengShuai,” using the hashtag that supporters are using on Twitter, while Nicolas Mahut, a French men’s player, retweeted a statement by the WTA saying Peng’s disappearance is “not only WTA’s problem. We are all concerned.”

In a statement released on Sunday, the WTA’s top official Steve Simon called for a “full, fair and transparent” investigation into sexual assault allegations against Zhang and “end censorship” against Peng.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. did not respond to Forbes’ request for comment. 

Surprising Fact

Tennis stars Serena Wiilliams, Naomi Osaka, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have not yet spoken out about Peng’s disappearance.

What To Watch For

How China responds. When asked about the Chinese tennis star’s disappearance, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian to AFP: “I have not heard of the issue you raised.” Stacey Allaster, the former CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association and head of the United States Tennis Association, told Reuters: “This is a very important moment for the WTA’s business and history.”

Key Background

According to Reuters, the WTA has expanded women’s tennis in China. In 2019, the prize money for the finals in China totaled $14 million, twice the amount given between 2015 and 2018. The organization plans to play the season-ending finals in China from next year until 2030, according to Reuters.

Tangent

China has previously retaliated against sports leagues and brands that have condemned its actions. Boston Celtics’ center Enes Kanter is the latest athlete to criticize China’s treatment of Uyghurs and Tibet. China’s Tencent, where fans in China can view 28 of the league’s 30 teams, removed highlights of the Celtics last month following Kanter’s comments. In 2019, the league’s games were pulled from CCTV, China’s state-run television, in response to a tweet then-Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey made in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.

Further Reading

Peng’s safety comes ahead of business, assures former-WTA CEO (Reuters)

WTA Tour Seeks Chinese Inquiry Into Player’s Sexual Assault Accusation (New York Times)

China silent on tennis star Peng Shuai despite growing concern (AFP)

Tennis Star’s Sexual Assault Claim Against Ex-Top Chinese Official Triggers Online Censors (Forbes)

Celtics’ Kanter Doubts NBA Truly Supports His Campaign Against China (Forbes)