Concerns are growing for Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai with the 35-year-old having not been seen in public since November 2 despite China State Media posting ‘proof’ she is safe via a series of photos earlier today.
In early November Peng, who has won two singles and 22 doubles titles during her career, made an allegation of sexual assault against a former prominent Chinese government official on microblogging website Weibo.
Worryingly, since the allegations, she has not been seen in public, which has led the tennis world to raise the alarm as they query the whereabouts of Shuai.
The hashtag #whereispengshuai has since trended on social media site Twitter, with prominent voices in the tennis world asking the Chinese government to confirm she is safe and well.
With uncertainties about the Asian sports stars’ whereabouts, the Women's Tennis Association has also cast doubt on its future dealings with China
Who is Peng Shuai?
She is one of China’s leading sports stars, with the tennis player having been previously ranked world number one in doubles - the first Chinese tennis player to do so, back in February 2014. She also hit a career best number 14 in singles back in August 2011.
Ms. Peng was doubles champion at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014, while she became a singles semi-finalist at the US Open in 2014. She has featured in three Olympian campaigns.
She last competed on the Women's Tennis Association tour in in Qatar just before pandemic in 2020.
What allegations did Peng Shuai make?
Peng Shuai alleged, with a detailed social media post, that she had been forced to have sex with a former prominent Chinese government official several years ago.
Ms. Shuai went into detail on her relationship with the man she has accused, Zhang Gaoli. In her post she accused the now 75-year-old has invited her to his family home for a game of tennis, before he allegedly forced her to have sex with him, while his wife guarded the door.
The sports star admitted she did have a consensual relationship with the government official when she younger, but alleged that later in her life he had sexually assaulted her in 2017.
She said she could not provide evidence to back her allegations, citing that Gaoli was concerned she would record her encounters with the adultery strongly prohibited within the Chinese Communist Party.
On social media site Weibo – an app similar to the more wildly known Twitter but ran and heavily censored by the government – she said she would “tell the truth about” Gaoli.
What happened after the allegations were made?
Shortly after the allegations were made, Ms. Shuai’s post was deleted, along with searches for her name and "tennis", which became blocked.
However, with her celebrity status, screenshots of the post were already made and shared across the globe. Her Weibo page went viral and the allegations were known across social media.
State media have not reported on the episode, reporters the New York Times. A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, was evasive answering questions about the accusation on Monday, saying, “I have not heard of the issue you raised.”
Chinese state media then latterly shared an email which they stated was issued by Shuai retracting her allegations, though tennis officials have cast doubt the email was sent by her.
Why do people believe she is missing and what have the Chinese government said?
Since the post was deleted on November 2, the tennis player has not been active on social media, nor has she been seen in public or able to be contacted, despite numerous attempts from the Women's Tennis Association to contact Shuai.
The Chinese Tennis Association have said she is safe, while the China State Media have posted a series of photos of the 35-year-old tennis player holding a cat and some cuddly toys as ‘proof’ she is not missing.
Despite this, top tennis organisations are asking for cast iron proof she is safe, with doubts already cast on the photos shared.
Steve Simon, the chairman and CEO, said the organisation had tried every which way to contact the player, but had still not been successful.
"Voice, digital, tweeting.”
"WeChat. WhatsApp. Text. There are plenty of different messaging things we all use and are all able to communicate with. And none of those have produced a result as of this point” he said.