Professional tennis player Peng Shuai has not been seen since going public with sexual assault allegations against former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli on Nov. 2.
Peng described in her Weibo post how she had agreed to a consensual affair with the former vice premier around a decade ago. However, three years ago, when Zhang was retired, he allegedly met her again and pressured her into sex.
“I never consented that afternoon, I was crying all the time,” she wrote. The tennis star said she then reluctantly agreed to continue the affair with him but was angered when Zhang insisted on it being kept secret.
The post was quickly removed around 10 minutes after being posted and Peng’s account was disabled. Even the word “tennis” was blocked across social media platforms, showing the tight level of control the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) applies to its highly censored internet.
After not being heard from since going public with her allegations against Zhang, an email allegedly written by Peng was released on Nov. 18 by Communist Party-run broadcaster China Global Television Network (CGTN). The email claimed that everything was fine and she was just resting at home.
The strange email began with: “Hello everyone, this is Peng Shuai,” supposedly written in her voice. Doubts were immediately cast over the authenticity of the email.
Now, concerns have further intensified over the tennis star’s well-being as whistleblowers in China have been known to “disappear” after making public allegations against high-ranking figures in the CCP regime.
The twitter hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai was also trending after colleagues and friends in the tennis world voiced concern over the star’s whereabouts.
Following the release of the bizarre email, WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said “the statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” declaring that should the WTA’s pending investigation on Peng’s allegations not yield any concrete information on her whereabouts or proof of safety, the WTA would be prepared to completely stop doing business in China.
Simon further elaborated, “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her. Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government. The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe. I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail.”
On Nov. 17, CGTN published on its Twitter account what it claims to be an email written by Peng to WTA Chairman Simon, recanting her sexual assault allegations against the 75-year-old retired official: “… the allegation of sexual assault, is not true.”
18-time Grand Slam winner Chris Evert, a long-time friend of Peng’s, tweeted on Nov. 14 that she was deeply concerned over the dangerous circumstances surrounding her disappearance.
“Yes, these accusations are very disturbing,” Evert wrote. “I’ve known Peng since she was 14; we should all be concerned; this is serious; where is she? Is she safe? Any information would be appreciated.”
Peng became the first Chinese tennis player to be ranked No. 1 in the Women’s Tennis Association for doubles in 2014. She also won gold at the Wimbledon doubles title in 2013 and the French Open in 2014 alongside her Taiwanese tennis partner Hsieh Su-wei.