China is facing pressure from the United Nations over Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s whereabouts as the organization called for an investigation into her allegations of sexual assault.
Peng, who is one of China’s most recognizable sports stars, has not been seen in public since she accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex at his home, according to screenshots of a since-deleted social media post dated November 2.
“What we would say is that it would be important to have proof of her whereabouts and wellbeing, and we would urge that there be an investigation with full transparency into her allegations of sexual assault,” Liz Throssell, the spokesperson of the UN Human Rights office, told reporters in Geneva on Friday.
“According to available information, the former world doubles No. 1 hasn’t been heard from publicly since she alleged on social media that she was sexually assaulted. We would stress that it is important to know where she is and know her state, know about her wellbeing,” Throssell said.
The head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Steve Simon has said he is willing to lose hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business in China if Peng is not fully accounted for and her allegations are not properly investigated.
“We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it,” Simon said in an interview Thursday with CNN. “Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business,” added Simon.
“Women need to be respected and not censored,” said Simon.
The White House said Friday it is “deeply concerned”.
Jen Psaki, the White House Press Secretary, told reporters: “We are deeply concerned by reports that Peng Shuai appears to be missing after accusing a former PRC (Peoples Republic of China) senior official of sexual assaults. We join in the calls for PRC authorities to provide independent and verifiable proof of her whereabouts and that she is safe.”
Peng’s post on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, was deleted within 30 minutes of publication, with Chinese censors moving swiftly to wipe out any mention of the accusation online. Her Weibo account, which has more than half a million followers, is still blocked from searchers on the platform.
The forceful intervention from Simon puts the tennis chief on a likely collision course with authorities in China, which have so far refused to publicly acknowledge Peng’s allegations. Perceived criticisms of China, which is also due to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in February, have previously resulted in significant public and political backlash, as well as loss of access.
‘Staged statement of some type’
Simon said the WTA had been in conversation with counterparts at the Chinese Tennis Association, who had provided assurances Peng was unharmed in Beijing. However, attempts to reach Peng directly had proved unsuccessful.
“We have reached out to her on every phone number and email address and other forms of contact,” he said. “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.”
Earlier this week, Chinese state media released an email, purportedly sent to Simon from Peng, walking back her allegations and claiming she is fine.
The alleged email was released only on English-language platforms and domestic Chinese media have not reported on its contents, despite Peng being a household name in China.
When asked about the email, Simon questioned its veracity, describing it as a “staged statement of some type,” noting he had yet to receive a follow-up reply, despite responding immediately.
“Whether she was coerced into writing it, someone wrote it for her, we don’t know,” said Simon. “But at this point I don’t think there’s any validity in it and we won’t be comfortable until we have a chance to speak with her,” he added.
Later on Friday, CGTN journalist Shen Shiwei tweeted three photos he claimed Peng had posted on WeChat along with the message “happy weekend.”
Shen said the photos were shared by one of Peng’s friends. CNN could not independently verify when the photos were taken, whether Peng posted the photos herself, or whether they were posted at all.
In a Twitter post on Saturday, Hu Xijin, editor of Chinese state-run tabloid the Global Times, republished the photos of Peng amid concerted efforts by government-controlled media to ease the intensifying concerns about the tennis star’s whereabouts and welfare.
“I confirmed through my own sources today that these photos are indeed Peng Shuai’s current state. In the past few days, she stayed in her own home freely and she didn’t want to be disturbed,” Hu tweeted. “She will show up in public and participate in some activities soon.”
Chinese state media Twitter accounts have been increasingly posting anonymously sourced information about the tennis star, ostensibly aimed at quelling the controversy without even acknowledging her claim against Zhang.
All media organizations in China are strictly controlled by the country’s propaganda authorities. Their tweets about Peng are not reported inside China, which has long banned Twitter and other international social media platforms.
Tennis’ popularity in China has grown rapidly over the past few decades, with several Chinese players breaking into the global rankings. The women’s game, in particular, is a big market, thanks in part to the success of Chinese tennis star Li Na, who in 2011 became Asia’s first grand slam singles tennis champion when she won the French Open, followed by a second major title at the 2014 Australian Open.
In recent years, the WTA has made a big push into China. In 2019, the WTA Finals relocated from Singapore to the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, entering into a lengthy ten-year deal.
In an interview with the New York Times from 2018, Simon described the arrangement with authorities in Shenzhen, which reportedly includes the construction of a new multimillion dollar tennis stadium, as a “huge opportunity” for women’s tennis in China.
“When you factor in the commitment to prize money and the commitments to the WTA, and you factor in the stadium build and real-estate elements, it’s over a $1 billion dollar commitment they have made to the WTA Finals and the WTA,” Simon was quoted as saying.
On Thursday, Serena Williams joined a growing number of international tennis players to voice concern over Peng’s whereabouts.
“I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible,” Williams wrote on Twitter. “This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.”
Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka on Tuesday said she was “in shock of the current situation.”
“Censorship is never OK at any cost, I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and OK,” she wrote as part of a statement on Twitter alongside the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
The controversy risks impacting the forthcoming 2022 Winter Olympics, which are set to kick off in Beijing in less than three months. Calls for a boycott have been growing in recent months, owing to concerns over China’s alleged human rights abuses. On Thursday, US President Joe Biden confirmed he is mulling a diplomatic boycott of the event.
The international concern for Peng, who is a three-time Olympian, having represented China at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, London in 2012, and Beijing in 2008, could now strengthen those calls.
However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has distanced itself from putting pressure on Chinese authorities.
In a response to CNN, the IOC said: “Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature. This explains why the IOC will not comment any further at this stage.”
Human Rights Watch accused the IOC of being “silent on the Olympian’s disappearance.” In a statement, the global rights group said it is “astonishing that the IOC would accept the government’s assurances, particularly at the expense of a female Olympian making grave allegations.”
Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Peng’s accusation is not a diplomatic issue and declined to comment further.
Amy Cassidy contributed to this report