A simple question has gripped the sports world and drawn the attention of the White House, United Nations and others:
Where is Peng Shuai?
The Chinese tennis star disappeared from public view for weeks in November after she accused a top Chinese leader of sexual assault, prompting a global chorus of concern for her safety. Then, the editor of a Communist Party-controlled newspaper posted video clips that appear to show Ms. Peng eating at a restaurant and attending a tennis event in Beijing. Days later, the International Olympic Committee said its president had spoken with her in a video call.
But the Women’s Tennis Association said it remained concerned about Ms. Peng’s ability to communicate freely and reiterated calls for Beijing to investigate her accusations. China’s authoritarian government has a long record of iron-fisted treatment of people who threaten to undermine public confidence in the party’s senior leaders.
On Dec. 1, the tennis association announced that it was immediately suspending all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong. In a statement, Steve Simon, the chief executive of the association, cited concerns about Ms. Peng’s safety, and added that “unless China takes the steps we have asked for, we cannot put our players and staff at risk by holding events in China.”
With only a few months to go before Beijing hosts the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, Ms. Peng’s situation could become another point of tension in China’s increasingly fractious relationship with the wider world.
Who Is Ms. Peng?
Peng Shuai, 35 — her family name is pronounced “pung,” and the end of her given name rhymes with “why” — is a three-time Olympian whose tennis career began more than two decades ago.
In February 2014, after winning the doubles crown at Wimbledon with Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan the year before, Ms. Peng rose to become a world No. 1 in doubles, the first Chinese player, male or female, to attain the top rank in either singles or doubles. She and Ms. Hsieh took the 2014 French Open doubles title as well.
Her doubles career underwent a resurgence in 2016 and 2017. But in 2018, she was barred from professional play for six months, with a three-month suspension, after she was found to have tried to use “coercion” and financial incentives to change her Wimbledon doubles partner after the sign-in deadline. She has not competed professionally since early 2020.
Why Did She Disappear?
Late in the evening on Nov. 2, Ms. Peng posted a long note on the Chinese social platform Weibo that exploded across the Chinese internet.
In the posting, she accused Zhang Gaoli, 75, a former vice premier, of inviting her to his home about three years ago and coercing her into sex. “That afternoon, I didn’t consent at first,” she wrote. “I was crying the entire time.”
She and Mr. Zhang began a consensual, if conflicted, relationship after that, she wrote. Mr. Zhang had served from 2012 to 2017 on China’s top ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee.
Within minutes, censors scrubbed Ms. Peng’s account from the Chinese internet. A near-blackout on her accusations has been in place ever since.
Women in China who come forward as victims of sexual assault and predation have long been met with censorship and pushback. But Ms. Peng’s account, which has not been corroborated, is the first to implicate such a high-level Communist Party leader, which may be why the authorities have been extra diligent in silencing all discussion of the matter, at one point even blocking online searches for the word “tennis.”
How Has the World Responded?
The censors might have succeeded had Steve Simon, the head of the Women’s Tennis Association, not spoken out on Nov. 14, calling on Beijing to investigate Ms. Peng’s accusations and stop trying to bury her case.
Confronting China has come with substantial consequences for other sports organizations. But Mr. Simon told CNN that the WTA was prepared to pull its business out of China over the matter. On Wednesday, he followed through on that threat. The tour stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years by pulling out of China.
Fellow tennis luminaries — the list so far includes Naomi Osaka, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal and Billie Jean King — have been speaking out in support of Ms. Peng. The Spanish soccer star Gerard Piqué posted with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai to his 20 million Twitter followers.
The Biden administration and United Nations human rights office have joined the calls for Beijing to provide proof of Ms. Peng’s well-being.
On Nov. 20, The Wall Street Journal published an essay by Enes Kanter, a center for the Boston Celtics, in which he called for the Winter Games to be moved from Beijing. Mr. Kanter has been a vocal critic of the Chinese government, assailing its policies in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The National Basketball Association’s streaming partner in China pulled Celtics games from its platform in Oct. after he began posting his criticisms on social media.
“All the gold medals in the world aren’t worth selling your values and your principles to the Chinese Communist Party,” Mr. Kanter wrote in The Journal.
The International Olympic Committee hinted that it was engaging in “quiet diplomacy” to untangle the situation. And on Nov. 21, the committee said its president, Thomas Bach, spoke with Ms. Peng for half an hour that day by video. She told Mr. Bach and two other I.O.C. officials that “she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected,” the committee said. A photo of Ms. Peng smiling on a large screen in front of Mr. Bach appeared alongside the committee’s announcement.
After the committee shared the news, the WTA said it remained concerned. Ten days later, Mr. Simon announced the tour’s withdrawal from China. “While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation,” he said.
On Thursday, the I.O.C. announced it had held a second video call with Ms. Peng, but released no details of what was said, who was on the call, or how it had been arranged. The statement repeated that the organization was using “quiet diplomacy.”
What Has China Said?
Pretty much nothing. Not officially, at least.
Instead, Chinese state-run news organizations and their employees have been the sole quasi-official voices from the country to weigh in. Notably, they are doing so on Twitter, which is blocked within China. Their messages appear to be aimed specifically at persuading the wider world.
First, a Chinese state broadcaster posted an email on Twitter, written in English and attributed to Ms. Peng, that disavowed the assault accusation and said she was just “resting at home.” Mr. Simon dismissed the email as a crude fabrication and said it only deepened his concerns for the tennis star’s safety.
Then, Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of the state-controlled newspaper Global Times, began sharing videos that appear to show Ms. Peng with his 450,000 Twitter followers.
In Mr. Hu’s first Twitter remarks on the subject, he said he didn’t believe Ms. Peng was being punished “for the thing that people talked about,” declining even to state the nature of her accusations.
On Saturday, Mr. Hu posted two video clips that he said he had “acquired.”
In one clip, a man is speaking with a woman who appears to be Ms. Peng at a restaurant when he refers to “tomorrow” as Nov. 20. Another woman at the table corrects him, saying tomorrow is the 21st. Ms. Peng nods in agreement.
The man appears to be Zhang Junhui, an executive with the China Open tennis tournament.
On Nov. 21, Mr. Hu posted another clip, which he said had been shot by a Global Times employee, that shows Ms. Peng at the opening ceremony of a tennis event in Beijing. Zhang Junhui seems to be standing to Ms. Peng’s right.
The China Open posted photos from the same event on its Weibo account. The photos show Ms. Peng waving to the crowd and autographing tennis balls, although the post does not name her.
Mr. Hu has not shared any of these videos on Weibo, where he has 24 million followers.
After the call between the I.O.C. and Ms. Peng, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, usually known for his feisty personality, once again declined to weigh in, saying that Ms. Peng’s situation “was not a diplomatic issue.”
Mr. Zhao added: “I think some people should stop the malicious hype and not politicize this issue.”