• Emily Costanzo

Chinese Tennis Star Peng Shuai Still Missing Following Sexual Assault Allegations


Image via BBC News


On November 18, China’s Global Television Network published the following email—one purportedly penned by the top-ranked women’s professional tennis player, Peng Shuai:


“Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai.


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.


If the WTA publishes any more news about me, please verify it with me, and release it with my consent. As a professional tennis player, I thank you all for your companionship and consideration. I hope to promote Chinese tennis with you all if I have the chance in the future. I hope Chinese tennis will become better and better.


Once again, thank you for your consideration.”[1]


On November 2, Peng Shuai, who was once described by the Chinese government as their “Chinese princess” and a “golden flower,” made a post on her verified social media account wherein she accused one of China’s former top officials of sexually assaulting her.[2] The allegations, made specifically against Zhang Gaoli, are the first of their kind against a high-ranking individual power in China.[3]


Now I’m no private investigator, but simply the tone of that email raised two (or twenty) red flags in my mind. As an added layer of context, following her allegations, Peng Shuai has disappeared from the public eye.


In the post, Peng described an on-again, off-again relationship with Zhang, a former provincial governor who served on the Politburo Standing Committee from 2012 to 2017.[4] According to Shuai, once Gaoli stepped down from his position, the pair rekindled their relationship—only for the former premier to assault Ms. Shuai after inviting her to play tennis with him and his wife.[5] Shuai further claimed that Gaoli forced her into multiple sexual encounters against her will.[6]


The post, however, was deleted in minutes, with only a few lingering screenshots to prove it existed in the first place. Many of those following the situation point to China’s extreme censorship practices, with some recognizing how similar accusations of sexual abuse in the nation are met with shame and “heavy-handed legal responses.”[7]


Although contempt and legal threats are certainly concerning, Peng Shuai’s current reality is much, much worse. Following the post—and its subsequent deletion—Peng Shuai has all but disappeared from public view. Both the tennis and professional sports world at large have responded with rage, confusion, and demands for answers, and how does China respond? You guessed it—with “Peng’s” email.


As of Friday morning, the Chinese government is claiming to have absolutely no knowledge of the situation. Zhao Lijan, spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters that the controversy was not a “diplomatic question and I’m not aware of the situation.”[8] This preposterous response has only added fuel to the fire of responses from around the world, with powers such as the U.N. Human Rights office responding with promises for “an investigation with full transparency into her allegation of sexual assault.”[9]


In the wake of bravely coming forward and making such allegations, Peng Shuai deserves support from her government, her country, and the world at large—not because she is a phenomenal athlete on the court, but because she is a human being off of it.

[1] https://twitter.com/CGTNOfficial/status/1461025491842916358/photo/1 [2] https://www.espn.com/tennis/story/_/id/32665214/china-foreign-ministry-not-aware-situation-surrounding-tennis-player-peng-shuai [3] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/17/world/asia/peng-shuai-zhang-gaoli-china-tennis.html [4] Id. [5] Id. [6] https://www.espn.com/tennis/story/_/id/32665214/china-foreign-ministry-not-aware-situation-surrounding-tennis-player-peng-shuai [7] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/17/world/asia/peng-shuai-zhang-gaoli-china-tennis.html [8] https://www.espn.com/tennis/story/_/id/32665214/china-foreign-ministry-not-aware-situation-surrounding-tennis-player-peng-shuai [9] Id.