China’s Peng Shuai at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia, January 21, 2021. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)
The Women’s Tennis Association has suspended tournaments in China and Hong Kong amid the suspicious disappearance of tennis star Peng Shuai, who leveled sexual assault allegations against a former prominent Chinese government official.
“Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way,” WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon published in a statement. “While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation.”
An accomplished tennis professional with an impressive competition record, Shuai faded from public view after she accused former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex on social media. Gaoli is a compatriot of Chinese president Xi Jinping, who has long drawn the ire of western countries for presiding over a regime notorious for brutality and an egregious human rights record.
“That afternoon I didn’t give my consent and couldn’t stop crying. . . . You brought me to your house and forced me and you to have relations,” she wrote in a post that Chinese authorities later scrubbed.
A veteran Chinese politician since the late 1980s, Zhang Gaoli served as vice premier from 2013 to 2018 and as a member of the country’s highest ruling council from 2012 to 2017.
Simon reportedly had been trying to contact Shuai ever since the incident happened but had been unable to reach her.
“We have worked every method available to us,” Simon told Time magazine. “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.”
Simon explained to the magazine that the Chinese Tennis Association told him that Shuai was safe from harm, but he had doubts about the authenticity of the message given the mysterious radio silence from Shuai.
The prodigious athlete suddenly going off the grid directly following her public exposé of a former Chinese statesman close to China’s quasi-dictator has suggested more than a coincidence to the WTA as well as lawmakers in Congress.
On November 17, Shuai retracted her accusation of sexual assault in a statement that raised alarm bells given its bizarre circumstances, namely that she had yet to appear on camera. “I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine,” it read.
In response to Shuai’s statement, which he felt was scripted, Simon released a subsequent statement saying: “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 communications, to no avail.”
As more incriminating episodes against China pile up, it calls into question whether Beijing, the seat of government of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, should keep the honor of hosting the upcoming Winter Olympics or whether the U.S. should boycott the games.
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