#FreePengShuai: What is known about the Chinese tennis player’s disappearance so far
The apparent disappearance of Peng Shuai has rocked the tennis world. Here is what is known so far.
Who is Peng Shuai and why is she in the news?
Peng Shuai is a tennis player from China. She was born on January 8, 1986, in Hunan, and is a former doubles world No 1. Her achievements include two Grand Slams, Wimbledon in 2013 and Roland-Garros in 2014, and the year-end WTA Finals doubles crown in 2013, all with partner Hsieh Su-wei.
On November 2, 2021, a post apparently from Peng Shuai appeared on Chinese social network Weibo. In it, she said she had had a secret affair with vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, which ended after he was promoted and moved to Beijing, and then had resumed after she had been taken to his home and coerced into sex.
Peng Shuai’s post was deleted within the hour. Her name and the word “tennis” were both censored on the social network immediately afterwards. She has not posted since.
What is the latest news on Peng Shuai?
On November 21, after two dubious videos were posted by Chinese state-affiliated media, the International Olympic Committee then posted an article in which it said it had held a 30-minute video call with Peng Shuai.
The video call itself was not posted – only a still photo, apparently of Peng – but the IOC said “she explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time”.
IOC member Dick Pound has since told Christine Amanpour on CNN that he was “puzzled” that people were not satisfied as to Peng Shuai’s safety after the video call – although he admitted he had not seen a recording himself.
“Basically, lots of people around the world were looking to see what happened to Peng Shuai and nobody was able to establish contact. Only the IOC was able to do so, and there was a conversation that was held by video with Thomas Bach, who’s an older Olympian, and two younger female IOC members. Nobody’s released the video because I guess that aspect of it was private.
“They found her in good health and in good spirits and they saw no evidence of confinement or anything like that.”
What is the #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag? How have fans been using it?
Some screenshots of the original posts are still circulating on other social media, along with non-verified translations of her words. Her post is apparently directed at vice-premier Zhang and narrates their relationship as well as Peng Shuai’s discomfort with the secrecy that was required and how frightened she was when she was coerced into resuming the affair.
A hashtag on social media #WhereIsPengShuai began to circulate, created by fans and accompanied by a photo of her taken from a Women’s Health magazine photoshoot some years ago.
When did the #FreePengShuai hashtag begin?
The new hashtag began to circulate after the IOC announced their video call with Peng Shuai, although no journalists were on the call and it was not clear where she was speaking from or when the call was held. That led to a new hashtag circulating on Twitter – #FreePengShuai, suggesting that she is being kept under house arrest or similar.
China’s foreign office has since pointed to that call as evidence that Peng Shuai is both safe and well and that the allegations are unfounded: “I believe everyone will have seen she has recently attended some public activities and also held a video call with IOC President Bach. I hope certain people will cease malicious hyping, let alone politicisation.”
How has the Chinese government reacted to Peng Shuai’s initial statement?
State media did not report on Peng Shuai’s initial accusations, and when a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, was asked about it, he denied that he had heard anything about it, replying: “I have not heard of the issue you raised.”
Observers have expressed concern that China’s repressive government apparatus has censored Peng Shuai and shut down any possible route by which she can tell her story. The New York Times quotes author Linda Jaivin, the writer of ‘The Shortest History of China’, as saying: “The party state has reacted as it does to all problems that challenge its moral standing and legitimacy by ‘disappearing’ the problem itself, but Peng Shuai, as an internationally prominent figure, is not so easily disappeared.”
What has the WTA said on Peng Shuai?
The WTA released a statement on November 14, in which CEO and chairman Steve Simon was quoted as saying:
“Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored. Her accusation about the conduct of a former Chinese leader involving a sexual assault must be treated with the utmost seriousness. In all societies, the behaviour she alleges that took place needs to be investigated, not condoned or ignored. We commend Peng Shuai for her remarkable courage and strength in coming forward.”
The WTA has been building its Chinese markets in recent years, with the WTA Finals scheduled to be held in Shenzhen up until 2030. Simon has made it clear that he will be willing to move future tournaments away from the country if Peng Shuai’s safety is not assured.
“If at the end of the day, we don’t see the appropriate results from this, we would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China if that’s what it came to,” he said.
Steve Simon has since reiterated the organisation’s stance in an interview with CNN.
Has Peng Shuai been heard from since, and what has the response been?
Chinese state media CGTN Europe shared an email on November 17, which they reported had been sent to Simon from Peng Shuai. It read: “Regarding the recent news released on the official website of the WTA, the content has not been confirmed or verified by myself and it was released without my consent. The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true. I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.” This email was immediately met with scepticism on social media doubting whether or not it was an authentic message from Peng Shuai.
Similarly, Chinese state-affiliated media reported that photos had been posted on Peng Shuai’s WeChat story, proving her safety.
Within hours of the initial CGTN Europe story, the WTA issued another statement on Simon’s behalf, which read: “The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her. Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government. The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe. I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail.”
Chinese state media have also posted video purporting to show Peng Shuai socialising.
WTA chairman Steve Simon made another statement after the videos from Chinese state-affiliated media in which he said he was pleased to see Peng Shuai apparently at a restaurant but said the world still needs more evidence to prove that she is “free to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference. This video alone is not sufficient”.
Additionally, New York Times reporter Christopher Clarey posted an email on Twitter showing what the WTA had said to the Chinese Ambassador to the United States, in which he said “the WTA is at a crossroads in China”.
What have other tennis players said?
A lot of tennis players have urged action, sharing both the #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag and the photograph. Naomi Osaka posted both on November 16 along with a short message of support.
Serena Williams described herself as “devastated and shocked” to hear of Peng Shuai’s disappearance on November 18:
Others from the world of tennis tweeting about Peng Shuai’s disappearance include Billie Jean King, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Petra Kvitova, Simona Halep, Maria Sakkari, Ons Jabeur, Nicolas Mahut, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, Benoit Paire, Liam Broady, Rajeev Ram, Tara Moore, Rohan Bopanna, Jurgen Melzer, Patrick McEnroe, Marion Bartoli, and Ellen Perez.
Footballer Gerard Pique, the founder of Kosmos Tennis, has also posted on social media about it.
The Professional Tennis Players’ Association has also released a statement.
Novak Djokovic was asked about the situation in his Nitto ATP Finals press conference on November 15, and said: “Honestly, it’s shocking, you know, that she’s missing, more so that it’s someone that I have seen on the tour in the previous years quite a few times. It’s not much more to say than hope that she will be found, that she’s OK.”
There have been no statements as yet from other leading figures in the world of tennis, including Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Who else has made a statement?
In the UK, the shadow minister for Asia and the Pacific Stephen Kinnock has asked the foreign secretary Liz Truss what representations she has made to the Chinese government on Peng Shuai’s behalf.
In the USA, Congressman Jim Banks of Indiana has written to President Joe Biden and Ambassador John Kerry to ask that they put pressure on the Chinese government and assure Peng Shuai’s safety.
The International Olympic Committee have refused to be drawn on making a clear statement. China is set to host the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in a matter of weeks. The IOC told InsideTheGames: “Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature.”
More about Peng Shuai the player
Peng Shuai is a former world No 1 in doubles and world No 14 in singles, finishing inside the WTA’s top 100 in singles for 13 seasons, and winning singles titles. At the Grand Slams Peng has made the second week in singles six times, including a career-best semi-final performance at the 2014 US Open, where she became the third Chinese player in history to reach a Grand Slam singles semi-final.
Peng, who played her first WTA main draw event in 2001 in Shanghai, has achieved far greater success on the doubles court, where she owns 23 titles and spent 20 weeks at No 1.