The UN has called on Chinese authorities to give proof of the whereabouts of tennis star Peng Shuai, as the White House said it was “deeply concerned” and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) said it was prepared to pull its tournaments out of China over the matter.
Peng, a former doubles world No 1, has not been seen in public since she accused the former high-ranking official Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault on 2 November.
“It would be important to have proof of her whereabouts and wellbeing and we would urge that there be an investigation with full transparency into her allegations of sexual assault,” Liz Throssell, a spokesperson for UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet, said in Geneva on Friday.
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki also called for the Chinese government to provide “independent, verifiable proof” of Peng’s whereabouts. Shortly after the UN call, photos purporting to show the tennis player were released by a Chinese state-affiliated journalist.
Shen Shiwei revealed a set of photos, which he said were posted on Peng’s WeChat social media account on Friday. “Her friend shared the three photos and the screenshot of Peng’s WeChat moments,” the journalist wrote on Twitter. But analysts debated the authenticity of the images.
Shen has been employed by China Global Television Network, the same state media network that published the email they claim was sent by Peng to the WTA.
The release of the images follows mounting concern for Peng’s wellbeing. On Friday, the WTA said it was prepared to pull its tournaments out of China if there was not an adequate response to her sexual assault allegation against the former senior Chinese politician.
Andrea Gaudenzi, the executive chairman of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), which governs men’s tennis, released a second statement further stressing concern about Peng’s welfare. “Developments in recent days in the case of Peng Shuai are deeply unsettling,” he said. “Her safety is our most immediate concern and clarity is required on the situation. The need for verifiable direct communication with her is vital.”
The men’s world No 1, Novak Djokovic, voiced his concern following his victory over Britain’s Cam Norrie at the ATP Finals in Turin, and said he supported “100%” the WTA’s threat to pull events out of China. “I support the statement of WTA,” Djokovic told reporters.
“The whole tennis community, needs to back [Peng] up and her family, make sure that she’s safe and sound because if you would have tournaments on Chinese soil without resolving this situation, it would be a little bit strange. I do understand why WTA has taken a stance like that.”
He added: “It’s important because this is horrifying. I mean, a person is missing. I hope that [we] find her very soon. It’s terrible. I mean, this could happen to anybody in any part of the world. It concerns the tennis world because she has been an international athlete for many years. She deserves at least our support.”
Other organisations and individuals to express their concern and support for Peng’s wellbeing on Friday included tennis champions Petra Kvitová and Simona Halep, the French Tennis Federation, the Dutch Olympic Committee and Athleten Deutschland, the association of German athletes. Feminist China, a social media account documenting China’s feminist movement, has scheduled a rally for Peng in New York on Sunday.
Meanwhile, since speaking out about Peng on Tuesday, Naomi Osaka’s Weibo profile has been censored, with users unable to leave comments on her most recent post and screenshots of her Twitter post removed. Despite the censors, Weibo users have been leaving messages on the pages of Osaka, Serena Williams, Djokovic and other players, thanking them for speaking out about their colleague.
In a lengthy 2 November post on Weibo, which was deleted half an hour later, Peng alleged that Zhang had forced her into sex after inviting her to his house to play tennis with him and his wife three years ago.
Peng also said she and Zhang had previously had an on-off consensual relationship. She added in the post that she could provide no evidence to back her allegations, but was determined to speak out.
Neither Zhang nor the Chinese government have commented on Peng’s allegation and discussion of the topic has been blocked on China’s heavily censored internet.
Concern among the global tennis community and beyond has grown over Peng’s safety and whereabouts since her allegation, with the WTA calling for an investigation and the world’s top players tweeting #WhereIsPengShuai.
On Thursday the WTA Tour chairman and CEO, Steve Simon, went further, telling US media the WTA, which has 10 events scheduled in China for 2022 worth tens of millions of dollars, was willing to pull them.
“We are at a crossroads with our relationship with China and operating our business over there,” Simon told CNN in an interview. “We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it because this is certainly bigger than the business.”
Simon said the WTA must demand justice and could not compromise. “Women need to be respected and not censored,” he said. His comments were welcomed by current and former tennis players, including Billie Jean King.
Simon has said the WTA had not been able to speak to Peng, and he was very concerned for her. The threat to pull out of China followed the release of what Chinese state media claimed was an email from Peng to Simon saying “everything is fine”. Simon said the claim – which was accompanied by a screenshot of text – only made him more worried, and he doubted it came from Peng.
China has been the focus of aggressive WTA expansion over the last decade and hosted nine tournaments in the 2019 season – the last before the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. It offered a total $30.4m of prize money and account for a significant portion of the WTA’s revenues.
But it is also under increasing pressure over a number of human rights issues, and there are growing calls for a boycott of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympic Games. The WTA’s stance over Peng, should it follow through, goes considerably further than that of many sporting organisations.
Three-times grand slam winner Andy Murray also added his voice to the
#WhereIsPengShuai campaign on Twitter on Friday while the Professional Tennis Players Association, a new body set up by Djokovic and Canadian player Vasek Pospisil, said players must be prepared to take action if Peng’s safety cannot be confirmed.