WTA says it is prepared to pull China tournaments over Peng Shuai

International concern mounts over welfare of player who hasn’t been seen since she made sexual assault allegations against former top Chinese official.

In this photograph taken on October 4, 2017, China's Peng Shuai hits a return during her women's singles match against Romania's Monica Nicolescu at the China Open tennis tournament in Beijing. Eighteen-time Grand Slam winner Chris Evert on November 14, 2021, became the highest profile member of an increasingly concerned tennis community to raise the question of Chinese player Peng Shuai's safety and whereabouts. Peng has been missing for the last 10 days and erased from Chinese internet and social media sites since accusing one of the leaders of her country of rape on her Weibo account - the equivalent of Facebook in China [FILE: GREG BAKER / AFP]

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has said it is willing to suspend tournaments in China until sexual assault allegations made by doubles star Peng Shuai are properly addressed.

Peng has not been seen in public since she announced on social media on November 2 that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli had forced her to have sex.

The post on China’s Weibo platform has since been deleted and all discussions of the issue in China have been blocked.

WTA chief Steven Simon, who on Thursday questioned the authenticity of an email allegedly from Peng shared by state media, told reporters in the United States that the association was prepared to pull tournaments worth millions of dollars over the issue. It has called for an investigation into the allegations.

“We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it,” he told CNN in an interview.

“Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business. Women need to be respected and not censored.”

Some of the world’s top players have joined in a social media campaign demanding to know her whereabouts with Serena Williams writing on Twitter on Thursday that she was “devastated and shocked” at Peng’s disappearance. Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic have also raised concerns about the player.

“I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible,” Williams wrote. “This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.”

The United Nations said on Friday it wants proof of Peng’s whereabouts.

“It would be important to have proof of her whereabouts and well-being and we would urge that there be an investigation with full transparency into her allegations of sexual assault,” UN Human Rights Office spokeswoman Liz Throssell told reporters in Geneva.

Adam Ni, an expert on China who publishes the China Neican newsletter, said the story had become increasingly concerning since it first broke.

“We wrote when the story first broke that ‘Going against a senior CCP official can ruin Peng’s life.’ Unfortunately, it looks like our fear has been realised,” he wrote on Friday.

China’s state-run broadcaster CGTN published a screenshot on Twitter of an email it said had been written by Peng to the WTA’s Simon in which she wrote the allegations were “not true” and that she was simply “resting at home”.

In response, Simon said he found it difficult to believe the email was actually from Peng. Beijing has previously faced allegations of using state media for forced confessions, with British regulators revoking CGTN’s licence for failing to comply with fairness and privacy rules.

Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, a brash tabloid owned by the Communist Party, said on Friday that he did not think Peng had been targeted over the allegation, which he referred to “as the thing people talked about”.

The comments were posted on Twitter and not shared on Weibo.

“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,” Hu wrote.

Olympics looming

China has remained largely silent over the welfare of the 35-year-old tennis star despite the growing concern internationally.

The former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion alleged that Zhang, who retired in 2018, had “forced” her to have sex during a long-term on-off relationship. Her claims mark the first time its fledgling #MeToo movement has struck at the top echelons of the ruling Communist Party.

The scandal has emerged as China prepares to host the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it would not comment on the matter.

“Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature,” an IOC spokesperson said. “This explains why the IOC will not comment any further at this stage.”

US Representative Jim Banks of Indiana said he has written to United States President Joe Biden about Peng’s disappearance, urging him to raise her case in his talks with China and to warn Beijing that it could have a negative impact on the Winter Olympics. The US is said to be considering a “diplomatic boycott” of the Games over human rights concerns.

Ni warned that while the international attention on Peng’s case was a “good thing”, China could push back.

“We may see retaliation from the Chinese Government on these sporting bodies and players, even though it would only draw more attention to Peng’s case,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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