On 2 nd November, the former tennis star and two times Grand Slam doubles champion, 35-year-old Peng Shuai, dropped a bombshell via the Chinese Twitter-style platform, Weibo, in a social media post in which she accuses former Vice Premier, 75-year-old Zhang Gaoli, of coercing her into having sex “about three years ago”.
In the post she refers to the fact that they had also had sex seven years prior to that, after which he appears to have abandoned her. It reads like an outpouring of emotion from a spurned lover, but the salient point she makes is that he came back into her life three years ago and forced himself on her, and “ No” should mean “ No”, Mr Zhang.
Within 30 minutes, Chinese censors wiped out any mention of the accusation online and blocked her Weibo account from search results.
This was followed by what appeared to be a retraction by Peng in which she said : “The allegation of sexual assault is not true. I ’m not missing, nor am I unsafe.” This was released by state-controlled media, so it wasn’t very convincing.
For almost three weeks, Peng was silent. Or had she been silenced? And then, over the past few days, video clips have been released by members of Chinese state media. One shows her at a restaurant with a Chinese tennis tournament director. She was then shown at a tennis event in Beijing.
Except that there is no proof as to exactly when these clips were filmed, so this wasn’t very reassuring.
This was followed by a video phone call with Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee. In that call Peng claimed she was safe and well and living with her family. Except that a Chinese sports official took part in that call. Again, not very reassuring.
The WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) is now putting pressure on the Chinese authorities to provide proof that Peng is safe. The WTA has serious financial clout in China. It is threatening to pull around $1bn in tournament commitments in the hope of getting answers.
Top players such as Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Simona Halep and Novak Djokovic have also weighed in on the matter under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
Halep spoke for most players when she tweeted: “ Peng Shuai, please know that your fellow players stand with you. “
This has now gone far beyond the tennis world or indeed that of sport. The White House and United Nations also came to Peng’s defence. Both called for investigations into her allegations and disappearance, with Joe Biden saying he was considering a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. And yet, still nothing is forthcoming from the Chinese authorities.
Has Peng Shuai been “disappeared”? There are even claims of a look-alike being used in those video clips. Conspiracy theories abound.
There’s no doubt a lot more to come on all this. One thing is for sure, though: not only tennis players and fans, but the whole world is watching. Whatever happens to her, Peng Shuai won’t be forgotten.