Chinese officials are silent on missing tennis star after claim of sexual assault, Xi purge may be connected

Chinese officials remained silent or completely avoided questions about missing tennis player Peng Shuai after posting an email she allegedly sent to the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).

Tennis players around the world have demanded an investigation into allegations Peng, 35, made in a social media post describing sexual abuse she suffered from former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli.

Peng claimed that Zhang, 75, forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals after tennis three years ago. She further claimed that Zhang’s wife guarded the door during the incident.

“Yes, except for myself, I kept no proofs, no recordings, no videos, just the real experience of my twisted self. Even if I destroy myself, like throwing an egg against a rock, or a moth flying into a flame, I will still speak the truth about us, “said the now deleted post.

The post was quickly removed from her verified account on Weibo, a major Chinese social media platform, but screenshots of the explosive allegation quickly spread via China’s internet.

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China’s state-controlled media outlets appear to have suppressed any reporting on the case. Peng has also been missing from the public since he made the post two weeks ago, raising questions about her whereabouts and whether she is under arrest.

Asked several times about the case, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said again on Thursday that he did not know about it. Chinese celebrities have faced repression and censorship in their country whenever they criticize actions by the government or officials – especially if those comments shed light of indecency on the nation.

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Searches for Peng Shuai’s name in the Chinese search engine Sogou show only articles about her tennis career. Her account at Weibo no longer allows comments, and no results appear if people search for her Weibo account.

China has largely suppressed the #MeToo movement, which prospered briefly in 2018 and is moving forward with the Beijing Winter Olympics in February despite boycotts by activists and some foreign politicians over China’s human rights.

Chinese state-affiliated outlet CGTN posted an email on Friday claiming that Peng had sent WTA CEO Steve Simon.

In the email, Peng insisted that the allegations of sexual assault were “not true,” and Peng further claimed that she was neither “missing” nor “insecure.” She requested that all information the WTA planned to release first receive her approval.

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But Simon said the email only raised further concerns and doubts about Peng’s safety.

“The statement released today by Chinese state media outlets about Peng Shuai only arouses my concerns about her safety and whereabouts,” Simon wrote in a statement. “Peng Shuai should be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source.”

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Simon has demanded a full investigation, and the WTA has said it is ready to pull tournaments out of the country if it does not receive an appropriate response.

Tennis players demanded action from the WTA and Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP).

Four-time winner of the biggest win Naomi Osaka posted a statement on Twitter with #WhereIsPengShuai, saying “Censorship is never in order for any cost.”

“I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and well,” Osaka wrote. “I’m shocked by the current situation and I’m sending love and lighting her way.”

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Swiss player Stanislaw Warinka, who won three majors, shared a poster to encourage #WhereIsPengShuai.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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