Disappearance of Chinese female tennis star galvanises sporting elite

Tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared this month after accusing a former Chinese vice-premier of sexual misconduct. Two weeks later she is still missing as leading figures in the sport joined forces with rights activists and #MeToo campaigners to locate her.

In early November, the 35-year-old athlete posted on social media publicly alleging that Zhang Gaoli assaulted her on at least one occasion in Tianjin, the city where he held a top Chinese Communist party position from 2007 to 2012.

She also claimed in the post that was erased by censors within minutes of being published that she had a long-running affair with the powerful political figure, who is 40 years her senior and married. The Financial Times could not verify Peng’s post.

The case raises uncomfortable questions about the Chinese Communist party’s record on women’s rights and civil liberties less than three months before it hosts the Winter Olympics.

It is common for the party’s disciplinary organ to accuse senior officials in vague terms of sexual and other misconduct when purging them, usually for alleged corruption. But the detailed accusations against Zhang, who retired without any stain on his official record in 2018, are unprecedented in China, especially from a woman as prominent as Peng.

“This is an extraordinary case,” said Yaqiu Wang, a China expert at Human Rights Watch, a US-based campaign group.

The #MeToo movement has struggled to gather momentum in China © Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

While Peng has not been seen nor heard from since the post, her disappearance gained global attention. Her case was thrust back into the spotlight this week after Chinese state broadcaster CGTN released a statement that quoted Peng saying she was resting at home, and that she was neither missing nor unwell.

The statement drew immediate scepticism from many who said it was either fake or written under duress. “No one believes she’s safe now,” said Yun Jiang, a China expert at Australian National University.

Just hours later, Steve Simon, Women’s Tennis Association chief executive, said he had been unable to contact Peng and called for her to be allowed to speak freely.

Simon questioned the email’s authenticity and called for her allegations to be “investigated with full transparency and without censorship”. The WTA holds 11 tournaments in China, home to a quarter of the world’s 87m tennis players.

The State Council information office, which handles media relations for the government, did not reply to a request for comment. Zhang and Peng could not be reached for comment.

On Friday, Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalist Chinese state-run media outlet Global Times, tweeted: “As a person who is familiar with Chinese system, I don’t believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for the thing people talked about.”

Peng is among a handful of Chinese tennis players to emerge on the international stage over the past two decades, winning doubles titles at both Wimbledon and the French Open.

Naomi Osaka, the four-time Grand Slam champion and the world’s highest-paid female athlete, Novak Djokovic, the men’s world number one, Serena Williams, winner of the most Grand Slam tournament titles, and Chris Evert, the broadcaster and former number one-ranked player, this week joined calls advocating for Peng’s safety.

“I think the WTA will . . . Choose life over money . . . Human rights, Human dignity take precedence . . . I’m praying for Peng,” Evert wrote on Twitter.

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. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent. Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time. #whereispengshuai pic.twitter.com/GZG3zLTSC6

— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) November 18, 2021

Wang, at Human Rights Watch, said that while she was “not so optimistic” about Peng’s future given China’s long history of forced disappearances and coerced confessions, she believed the support could help Peng’s cause.

“International attention will definitely at least make the Communist party more cautious in terms of what they want to do with Peng Shuai,” she said.

However, the episode has already demonstrated the overwhelming power of China’s censors at eviscerating signs of public dissent.

After Peng posted her accusations on her official Weibo account, the post and comments about it were quickly blocked although screenshots of it circulated widely. Censors then blocked both overt and coded references to Peng and Zhang.

People attempting to comment about Peng or Zhang online received messages saying that their posts “violated relevant laws and regulations”.

Zhang joined the Chinese Communist party’s most powerful body, the Politburo Standing Committee, in 2012. He was appointed vice-premier a year later.

Peng’s case is the latest sign that the #MeToo movement to tackle discrimination and sexual harassment of women has not gathered the same momentum in China as it did in the US and Europe, where similar accusations ended the careers of many prominent entertainment, business and political figures.

Men far less powerful than Zhang have routinely been able to quash such accusations in China, often with help from state censors and party-controlled courts.

In September, a Beijing court dismissed landmark sexual harassment charges brought by Zhou Xiaoxuan, a screenwriter, against a prominent media figure. In one of the movement’s most high profile cases, the court said there was insufficient evidence to substantiate her claims.

One China-based women’s rights activist, who asked not to be named, said she expected Peng would eventually be forced to make a public retraction and be forever “buried” in the social media realm.

She said that while it may be possible for women to make public cases against celebrities or businesspeople, senior party officials were off limits.

Yun, at Australian National University, said Peng had demonstrated “much courage and bravery” in coming forward with her claims. “Going against a senior [party] official can ruin anyone’s life.”

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