Saga of Chinese Tennis Star Serves Up Concern and Controversy

No one cares where Waldo is anymore. The new buzz phrase is “Where’s Peng Shuai?” Concern about the Chinese tennis player’s whereabouts has been a hot topic in the media since early November. After Peng Shuai posted a #MeToo accusation on social media alleging a sexual assault by a high-ranking Chinese government official, she dropped out of sight. Where was Peng Shuai? Nowhere to be found.

Unless you are a tennis buff (not raising my hand), you may not know who Peng Shuai is much less where she is. The 35 year old was the first ever Chinese tennis player to achieve a #1 ranking. Learning to play tennis at age 8, Peng mastered the game and rose to become a three-time Olympian, a #1 ranked doubles player, and the winner of Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.

Peng’s visibility in the media skyrocketed after a social media post she made November 2nd on Weibo. The tennis star accused Zhang Gaoli, a former Chinese government official with whom she previously had a consensual relationship, of sexually assaulting her at his home in 2018. Her lengthy post stated she was forced to have sex with Zhang despite her repeated refusals as his wife stood guard at the bedroom door. Isn’t that taking the idea of a supportive spouse a tad too far?

Peng’s accusations were the first #MeToo charge ever leveled against a high-ranking Chinese government official. The alleged perpetrator served as one of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the top tier of political power in China. Now 75, Zhang left public life about three years ago.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, within minutes of Peng’s post about Zhang, it was removed from China’s heavily censored internet. The tennis player herself disappeared from the public sphere, and online conversations about what she had alleged were likewise censored in the ensuing days. The Chinese government gave no indication it was investigating these accusations. Perhaps it was too busy ramping up military operations in the South China Sea to bother with claims of wrongdoing made against a long-retired government official.

While the Chinese government seemingly ignored the situation, professional athletes and sports associations were quite concerned. A clamor arose over the plight of the missing tennis player. No one from the World Tennis Association (“WTA”) was able to reach Peng to confirm her status. Stars such as Naomi Osaka, Andy Murray, and Serena Williams spoke publicly about the need to obtain information on Peng’s location and well-being. The hashtag #whereispengshuai trended on Twitter. The women’s professional tennis tour threatened to pull out of events in China unless the safety of the Chinese star was assured.

The Chinese government pushed back on the worldwide hue and cry about Peng Shuai. It characterized concerns about her as being “maliciously hyped up” and “politicized.” But, of course, sports stars and sports associations have nothing better to do than get involved in international politics; they’d be WAY more concerned about that than the safety of a fellow player/tour member.

The situation escalated with calls to boycott the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing set to begin on February 2nd. Money talks, and the Olympic Games are BIG money. All of a sudden China’s state media released an email allegedly from Peng. This email stated her previous allegations about Zhang were false and that she was fine–just “resting at home.” In “Hamlet,” something was rotten in the state of Denmark. However, when it comes to Peng Shuai, chances are good there’s something rotten in the state of China. Why was the government disseminating this message instead of Peng Shuai herself?

As controversy and concern continued to swirl, the Chinese government then posted two videos on Saturday which appeared to show Peng at a restaurant with friends. The next day brought pictures of Peng appearing at a youth tournament in Beijing. So much for resting at home….And why would she be out at a restaurant or at a public event? Wouldn’t this be a good time to lay low to avoid poking the government bear any further after her bombshell allegations?

A 30-minute video call between Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and Peng also took place. However, the interview produced little in the way of details and simply gave rise to more questions. Despite the interaction IOC had with Peng, the WTA is still worried about Peng’s well-being and whether she is able to communicate without censorship or coercion. Steve Simon, the WTA Chairman stated, “While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take action on her own without coercion and external influence.”

While the Chinese government posted videos and photos of Peng in order to quell worldwide concern about her location, it has been mum on any action it has taken or will take to investigate Peng’s accusations. The U.N. Human Rights Office has called for a “fully-transparent” investigation into the tennis player’s claims. In contrast, the IOC appears to be pursuing “quiet diplomacy.” The latter certainly doesn’t want to rock the boat before the cash cow Winter Olympics have concluded.

As disturbing as this story is from a human rights perspective, at least it is different from the other news dominating the media. The alleged perpetrator lives in another country–not in the same town or even state as we do. No gun rights issues are involved. Whether or not anyone is vaccinated or has been wearing a face mask is irrelevant. While we can be thankful for a change of pace in news stories, let’s pray that this story of a human rights violation results in positive changes in a repressive country.

WONDER-ing Woman:

What role does the media play in this story–a positive or negative one? What type of future do you envision for Peng since she has made these allegations? Does it matter that Peng previously had a relationship with the alleged perpetrator if relations were forced?