#FreePengShuai: Latest news on the Chinese tennis player’s well-being and whereabouts – updated with L’Equipe interview
Three months after she made allegations of sexual assault against a former high-ranking Chinese official, Peng Shuai has given her first interview to the international media. Here is what is known about the case 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 Slam doubles titles, at 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 from Peng Shuai appeared on Chinese social network Weibo. In it, she said she’d 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. She last played on the Tour in February, 2020.
As of early December the WTA has suspended all play in China and Hong Kong in 2022 and, most recently, Peng gave her first interview with the international (non-Chinese) media (on February 7).
What is the most recent news about Peng Shuai?
The Chinese player spoke to L’équipe for an hour on February 7, 2022, and did her best to dispel all speculation about her viral Weibo post of November 2nd. She even said that she had deleted the post of her own volition.
“There was a huge misunderstanding in the outside world following this post,” Peng said. “I don’t want the meaning of this post to be twisted anymore. And I don’t want any further media hype around it.”
Peng also added that she never said anything about sexual assault when she referred to former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli.
“Sexual assault? I never said anyone had sexually assaulted me in any way,” Peng said.
IOC President Thomas Bach – the question has been answered
Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee was the first to contact Peng, and he maintains that his organisation has done everything it could to help answer the question of “Where is Peng Shuai.”
“We tried to answer the question that everyone was asking: ‘Where is Peng Shuai?” said Bach, according to L’équipe. “That’s why we took this human-centered approach from the very beginning (referring to their meeting via videoconference in November), and that’s why we invited her here, to show everyone that this is not a one-day process.”
Bach added that he has invited Peng to visit the IOC headquarters this summer.
“We will maintain this contact,” added Bach. “We have answered the question ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’. We continue by having invited her to come to Lausanne (the location of the IOC headquarters).”
Will Peng Shuai ever play again?
Peng was asked by L’équipe if she planned to resume her career. Her initial response?
“Maybe in a seniors team!”
She would later elaborate, discussing the factors that made it unlikely that she would return – primarily her age and her knee issues.
“If you take my age (36 years old), my multiple surgeries and the pandemic which forced me to stop playing for so long, I think it’ll be very hard for me to get back to the [elite] level,” she said. “I’ve needed injections in the cartilage of my knee for a dozen years and underwent two surgeries about seven years ago. These last five years, I underwent three more surgeries. This is a major injury. Before the pandemic, I would fly to Munich every two or three months to get my injections. Now, with the pandemic, we can no longer make any plans. You have to travel, quarantine, train. It’s practically impossible to return to a routine of training normally, recovering and going to compete again.”
Peng Shuai talks to the IOC, denies she made sexual assault allegations
Though Peng has since been seen in a couple of videos, and apparently in two private video calls with the IOC, there remains serious concern about her well-being, and the censorship of her comments.
According to IOC president Thomas Bach, Peng is scheduled to attend the Beijing Olympics (a meeting between the two parties occurred on February 5th).
Before that, the most recent news of Peng Shuai came on Sunday, December 19, when Chinese state-controlled media shared a video in which she is shown with other Chinese Olympians, including basketball star Yao Ming. Although Ming is heard to speak in the short clip, she does not. Peng is also the only person in the clip who is not wearing a mask, making her easily identifiable. On the same day, Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao, a Chinese-language publication under the state-controlled Singapore Press Holdings, released an interview with Peng in which she apparently retracted her previous claims.
“I wanted to make this very clear: I have never claimed, or written about anyone having sexually assaulted me,” Peng said. “With regards to Weibo, it’s about my personal privacy … There’s been a lot of misunderstanding … There [should be] no distorted interpretation.”
Simon’s stance against China – WTA suspends all tournaments in China for 2022
On Wednesday, December 1, WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon announced the suspension of WTA tournaments in China until further notice. “With the full support of the WTA Board of Directors, I am announcing the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong,” he said in a lengthy statement here.
“In good conscience, I cannot see how I can ask our women athletes to play tournaments in places where Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and where she has apparently been pressured to withdraw allegations of sexual assault. At the stage this case is at, I am also very concerned about the risks our players and staff would face there if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”
Did Peng Shuai really disappear?
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.”
On December 2, 2021, the IOC said it had held a second video call with Peng (on December 1), in which she reportedly showed no signs that her wellbeing was affected. Again, however, the video was not posted.
Peng on February 7: “I never disappeared”
Peng told L’équipe that people were wrong to assume she had disappeared.
“I never disappeared,” she said. “It’s just that many people, like my friends or people from the IOC messaged me, and it was simply impossible to answer so many messages. But I’ve been always in close contact with my close friends. I talked to them, I answered their emails, I also talked with the WTA… But at the end of the year, the communication IT system of their website was changed and many players had difficulties logging in. But my colleagues and I always stayed in touch. That’s why I don’t know why the news I had disappeared spread.”
Simon: “This is something we can’t walk away from”
Speaking to CNN on December 1, Steve Simon said the WTA was standing up for what is right.
“I can only imagine the range of emotions and feelings that are likely going through Peng right now,” he said. “We hope that she feels that none of this is her fault and we’re very proud of her. I hope she knows we’re proud of her. This is something we can’t walk away from. If we walk away from this we’re basically telling the world that not addressing sexual assault with the respect and seriousness it requires is OK because it’s difficult to do. That’s something that simply cannot happen and it’s not what we stand for as an organisation.”
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.
At the 2022 Australian Open, a group of fans with banners saying: #whereispenghshuai were initially confiscated by tournament organisers. After widespread outcry on social media, the banners were allowed.
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 does Peng Shuai risk?
China, ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, the only authorised political grouping in China, is not a state governed by the rule of law, which makes it difficult to read its actions against its own citizens if they threaten its reputation. In the days when Peng Shuai disappeared, her supporters did not rule out the worst, hence the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai. Since the evidence of life seems to have been passed on, the concerns of her international supporters are those of her personal freedom, hence the hashtag #FreePengShuai.
Academic experts on the Chinese regime and human rights activists in China point out that it is the practice of the Chinese regime to place its alleged critics under detention or house arrest, for varying lengths of time, easily running into months.
The most comprehensive article on Peng Shuai’s likely situation was written by opponent Yaxue Cao. Among other things, it argues that there is no transparency to be expected from the Chinese authorities, who have not been able to demonstrate transparency on the issue of the origins of COVID-19. Yaxue Cao also claims that if Peng Shuai travels again to play tennis, she will be placed under close surveillance by the regime.
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 first 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”.
On December 2, the Chinese Tennis Association reportedly issued a statement – carried on CGTN’s website – in which it denounced the WTA’s announcement.
“The WTA has unilaterally announced on 1 December 2021 its decision to suspend tournaments in China,” the statement read. We would like to express our indignation and firm opposition to this decision,” the CTA said in the statement.
“The unilateral decision of the WTA, in name of ‘protecting its players,’ was made based on fictitious information. It not only beset and hurt the relevant athlete herself, but also will severely harm the female tennis players’ fair opportunities to compete, then damage the interest of the entire sport of tennis.”
The ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi then issued a statement, backing calls for transparency but falling well short of following suit by suspending tournaments in China.
Since then Shuai has turned up in two interviews with the IOC, in addition to her first interview with international media, which was down with L’équipe on February 7.
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.”
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have also said they hope Peng is safe and well.
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 United Nations said on November 20 that it wanted proof Peng is safe and well.
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.”
On Nov 30, the European Union issued a statement, issuing their support for Peng and asking for “verifiable proof” of her safety, wellbeing and whereabouts”.
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.