Who is Peng Shuai and Why is the World Looking For Her?

© AFP 2023 / WILLIAM WEST(FILES) This file photo taken on January 13, 2019 shows China's Peng Shuai serving the ball during a practice session ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne
(FILES) This file photo taken on January 13, 2019 shows China's Peng Shuai serving the ball during a practice session ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne - Sputnik International, 1920, 19.11.2021
The case of the Chinese tennis player has received widespread media coverage worldwide and drawn the attention of numerous sports stars. The head of the Women's Tennis Association Steve Simon said the organisation will sever ties with Beijing if Chinese authorities don't conduct a proper investigation into her allegations.
China is facing growing calls to provide the whereabouts of local tennis player Peng Shuai, who disappeared from public sight after accusing a former high-ranking government official of sexual abuse in a post on social media.
More and more individuals and organisations have demanded Beijing address the issue. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic said he was shocked by Peng Shuai's story, while another tennis superstar, Serena Williams, said the athlete's claims should be investigated. "We must not stay silent", Williams wrote.

Here is what is known so far:

One of China's Biggest Sports Stars

Peng Shuai began playing tennis at eight with her uncle, a famous coach in China, being credited for introducing her to the game. At the age of 15 she won her first singles title at a tournament at Baotou defeating the winner of the 2004 Summer Olympics, Sun Tiantian. By the age of 20 she was widely seen as one of China's biggest sports stars.

Peng Shuai went on to become world number one in doubles, winning two Grand Slam titles – Wimbledon in 2013 and the 2014 French Open. She also reached the US Open semifinals in 2014. Overall, she's won two singles and twenty-two doubles titles.

China's Biggest #MeToo Incident

On 2 November, Peng Shuai accused former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual abuse in a statement posted on her account on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. The athlete wrote that the high-ranking official "forced" her into having sex after inviting Peng Shuai to his house to play tennis with him and his wife. The purported incident occurred in 2018. Peng Shuai wrote that she doesn't have any evidence to corroborate her allegations.

Within 30 minutes her post disappeared from social media and since then the tennis player has been unavailable. According to CNN, her account on Weibo has been blocked and all mention of the accusation has been deleted on social media. Ms Peng has also not been seen in public.

The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) said representatives from the local tennis association had provided assurances that the athlete is fine in Beijing, but the organisation noted that its own attempts to communicate with Ms Peng were unsuccessful.

"We have reached out to her on every phone number and email address and other forms of contact. There's so many digital approaches to contact people these days that we have, and to date we still have not been able to get a response", said WTA head Steve Simon.

Earlier this week, Chinese state-media CGTN released an email purportedly written by Ms Peng to Steve Simon. In the letter, the athlete writes that she is safe.

"I've just been resting at home and everything is fine", the email read as per the BBC.

Per CNN, the letter also contained statements in which the athlete purportedly walked back her allegations against the former vice premier.

Both the WTA and human rights group Amnesty International voiced doubt that the email was actually written by Peng Shuai.

"China's state media has a track record of forcing statements out of individuals under duress, or else simply fabricating them. These concerns will not go away unless Peng's safety and whereabouts are confirmed", said Doriane Lau, a researcher at Amnesty International.

Since the story gained worldwide attention numerous athletes have called on the Chinese authorities to launch an investigation into the issue, with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai trending on social media. Among the athletes demanding action are world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, tennis superstar Serena Williams, Barcelona defender Gerard Pique, and Swiss tennis player Stanislas Wawrinka.
One of Japan's prominent athletes and four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka said she was in shock and voiced hope that Peng Shuai and her family are ok.

What Will Happen Next?

The popularity of tennis has grown rapidly in China in recent decades, with numerous tournaments being held in the country. However, the WTA has signalled that it is ready to sever ties with Beijing unless Peng Shuai's allegations are properly investigated.

Steve Simon said the organisation is ready to lose hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business in China if the issue is not addressed.

"Women need to be respected and not censored. We're definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it. Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business", Mr Simon said.

Zhang Gaoli is one of China's high-ranking officials. Between 2013 and 2018 he was a member of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee and is said to have been a close ally of President Xi Jinping. This is the first time that a claim of sexual abuse has been made against senior political leaders in China.

Neither Mr Zhang nor Chinese officials have addressed the issue. On 18 November, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said he was "not aware of the relevant situation" when asked by reporters about Ms Peng's whereabouts.

The case may likely mar the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing next year. China has already faced calls for a boycott of the event over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, a claim Beijing has vehemently denied.
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