Where is Peng Shuai?

by Shalan Govender

Image: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Following sexual assault allegations she made against a high-ranking member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, Peng Shuai vanished from public view, which raised concerns for her freedom and safety.

Peng Shuai, 35, is a three-time Olympian whose tennis career began more than two decades ago. Furthermore, she is the former World’s number one in doubles tennis. Thus, to say she is an accomplished tennis player would be reductive.

On 2 November, Peng took to Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) to accuse Zhang Gaoli, a former Vice-Premier, of sexually assaulting her. This allegation was the first made against a member of such seniority in the Communist Party. The post sparked a widespread conversation on Chinese social media. But, within minutes of posting on her verified Weibo account, the post was removed by Chinese censors, and her internet presence scrubbed.

However, the post was up long enough for people to take screenshots and share it across the internet. In the lengthy post, Peng alleged that Gaoli had sex with her against her will and admitted that she was apprehensive about coming forward with her story given Gaoli’s stature. And in addition to Gaoli undoubtedly being a man of great stature, Gaoli had, when working in the Communist Party, close relations to the sitting Chinese President, Xi Jinping.

After making her post, Peng disappeared not only from the internet but from the world entirely. She was not seen or heard from for nearly three weeks. Considering the circumstances surrounding her disappearance, people around the globe started voicing their concerns for her safety and freedom due to China’s infamous record of imprisoning anyone who undermines the Communist Party and its members. Those who expressed worry for Peng included fellow esteemed tennis players Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer. Moreover, the chair of WTA (Women’s Tennis Association), Steve Simon, said that Peng was unavailable for contact and multiple attempts of reaching out to her were unsuccessful.

Influential Chinese citizens disappearing is nothing new. China has previously taken international film star Fan Bingbing and the Interpol chief, Meng Hongwei, into custody with no explanation and no response for comment. But, this situation is different as China is hosting the Winter Olympics in a matter of weeks and is worried that the public outcry for Peng will deter athletes from attending the Olympics.

Thus, in an attempt to suppress further speculation and inquiry, Chinese state media released an email supposedly written by Peng stating that she wishes to withdraw her allegations and, though thankful for public concern, is simply resting at home. The release of the email inadvertently only intensified worries for her safety and freedom as reporters, human rights advocates, and tennis officials have all said the email does not provide any evidence of her wellbeing and is possibly not written by Peng. Suspicion of the origins of the email comes from the fact that the email unequivocally contradicts (without any explanation) the aforementioned Weibo post.

Following the email, the WTA chair emphatically stated that the email was unsubstantial and that the whereabouts and wellbeing of Peng need to be confirmed urgently. Seemingly in response, Chinese state media released two videos and some images of Peng holding teddy bears. These videos and images were, similar to the email, meant to support China’s narrative that she is safe and well. But, like the email, the videos and images created more suspicion on the nature of her disappearance.

All the “proof” of her wellbeing could not be independently verified. In one particular video, someone can be heard prompting Peng (who notably remains silent in the video) and the people eating with her at a restaurant to start speaking. The audible prompt has further ignited suspicion that she is being held against her will. Furthermore, in the video a person can be heard and seen repeatedly discussing the date of the day they are eating and the date of the following day. The date provided in the video places the time of the meal and video recording during the public inquiry of her whereabouts and safety. Seemingly, the video is meant to appease the increasing questioning of her safety and location but only substantiates concerns due to the conspicuously manufactured nature of the video.

At the moment, human rights advocates and others are imploring athletes and officials of countries to boycott the Olympics and any other upcoming sporting events held in China. Additionally, the WTA has said that if Peng’s wellbeing and freedom are not immediately confirmed with substantial evidence, the organisation is prepared to pull any and all of their tournaments from being held in China. While China, on the other hand, is doubling down (through their state-run media) that Peng is okay and that any inquiry into her is autonomy and safety is baseless.

The story of Peng deeply concerns people across the world who have watched for some time now as China cracks down on all dissent through brutal censorship and imprisonment. But, the story is also deeply alarming as it highlights the precarious position of the MeToo movement in China.

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