The mysterious disappearance (and reappearance) of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai
Mystery still surrounds Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai after her mysterious disappearance in 2021. Some, such as the WTA leadership, believe the athlete is currently under strict control of the Communist government.
Peng Shuai was seen last February, during the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. It was hard to believe how a few months earlier she had been at the center of what some Western media, such as France24, dubbed the “Chinese #MeToo Movement.”
The three-time Olympian, seen here talking with International Olympics Committee president Thomas Bach, gave an interview this February to French sports newspaper L'Equipe. There, she claimed that the sex abuse allegations she made public last November were “a misunderstanding.”
Meanwhile, Peng Shaui's accusations, disappearance, and eventual reappearance have caught the attention of many human rights activists in the West. Here you can see her image during a US Congress hearing titled “The Beijing Olympics and The Faces of Repression.”
At the same time, anti-Chinese government protestors could be seen wearing T-shirts asking about Peng Shuai during the Australia Open last January.
Despite China's best attempts to keep the scandal under the rug, around the globe the claims the tennis player made against former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli are still a matter of speculation.
Peng Shuai suddenly went off the radar for a while in November 2021. The Western world demanded to know where she'd gone, and there were suspicions that the Chinese government of her country might have put her in jail or worse.
Even after Peng was seen during a children's tournament in Beijing (pictured) on November 21, questions have remained around the case. Images like this one were heavily circulated by Chinese state media.
Image: Weibo China Open
Also on Sunday November 21, Peng Shuai held a conversation with International Olympic Committee (IOC) chairman Thomas Bach. The tennis player explained to him that she was "safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time," according to a press release by the IOC. There's little question that he had, indeed, spoken to Peng Shuai.
The day before the conversation, Hu Xijin, a journalist who has close ties with the Chinese government, posted a video of Peng Shuai having dinner at a restaurant with her coach. The table talk in the video brings up the date of the recording, an oddity that generated more questions than answers.
One of those skeptical about the video and Peng Shuai's sudden reappearance is Steve Simon, Chairman, and CEO of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA). “While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference,” the chairman stated.
"This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern," declared Simon, pictured here doing the WTA finals in Shenzhen, China, in 2019.
The assault allegation made by Peng Shuai ignited a grand slam of diplomacy and sports politics for several weeks. On November 2, the tennis player went quiet after making major accusations against a very important member of the Chinese power hierarchy. That silence was enough proof, for Western media at least, that the tennis player had “disappeared.”
The 35-year old female tennis world champion posted on the Chinese social network Weibo that she had been repeatedly assaulted by Zhang Gaoli. He was the Vice Premier of the People's Republic of China between 2013 and 2018.
"But even if it's just striking a stone with a pebble, or a moth attacking a flame and courting self destruction, I will tell the truth about you," posted Peng Shuai on Weibo about Zhang Gaoli. Local authorities deleted all related messages and censored any references to the case on the Chinese internet.
As such, the mystery of Peng Shuai was born. Western media grew suspicious that the Chinese government had taken repressive actions, something that humanitarian organizations have signaled before. Was Peng Shuai detained?
The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai quickly spread on social media. Japanese tennis champion Naomi Osaka said she was "shocked" by the situation. Other tennis players and athletes of every type of sport spoke out.
US women's tennis legend Chris Evert posted on Twitter: "These accusations are very disturbing. I’ve known Peng since she was 14; we should all be concerned; this is serious; where is she? Is she safe?"
On November 17, after 15 days without any sign from her, Chinese state television network CGTN posted an e-mail supposedly written by Peng Shuai to the WTA chairman, Steve Simon. Many, including Simon himself, questioned the e-mail's authenticity.
The email released by CGTN said the following: “Hello everyone, this is Peng Shuai. (…) The news in that release, including the allegation of assault, is not true. I'm not missing, nor am I unsafe. I've just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.”
The incident affected the relationship between the Women's Tennis Association and the People's Republic of China. After the email was released, Steve Simon stated that he was willing to boycott the country if the WTA didn't get a straight answer.
"If at the end of the day, we don’t see the appropriate results from this, we would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China if that’s what it came to," the WTA chairman stated to The New York Times.
William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator of the group 'Chinese Human Rights Defenders,' did't believe in the mail from Pen Shuai either. He declared to The Guardian that “The Chinese government has a long history of arbitrarily detaining people involved in controversial cases, controlling their ability to speak freely, and making them give forced statements.”
CGTN, the TV network that released Peng Shuai's emails, lost its UK broadcasting licence in early 2021 after airing false confessions made by Peter Humphrey, a British journalist detained in China.
In 2013, the former Reuters correspondent had been forced to make false confessions on criminal charges in a Chinese television broadcast while he was “locked in a cage, cuffed into a chair and sedated,” according to Humphrey himself.
China is a growing powerhouse in many sports, including tennis. Peng Shui is a star in doubles. Peng and her Taiwanese partner Hsieh Su-wei won women's doubles at Wimbledon in 2013 and at Ronald Garros in the following year.
Peng was number one in women's doubles in 2014. She's the first Chinese tennis player to become world champion in her category, which quickly made her a celebrity in her own country.
Altogether, Peng Shuai won 24 tournaments in doubles and 4 in singles. Now, with 35 years, she hasn't played in a WTA tournament since February 2020, when she lost in the second round of doubles in Doha at the Qatar Total Open.
Peng Shuai was fined 10,000 euros and suspended by the Tennis Integrity Unit for six months after trying to force her doubles partner at that time, the Belgian player Alison Van Uytvanck, to drop out of the Wimbledon tournament in 2017.
The Belgian tennis player said that she and her coach Alain De Vos were “stalked” day and night by Peng Shuai, asking her to leave the doubles. Peng and her coach even offered van Uytvanck financial compensation to drop out of Wimbledon.
People can really only speculate what happened behind the scenes with Peng Shuai. One can only hope that, someday, the powerful men who exploit their position to abuse those under them will be held accountable, one way or the other.