In a thirty minute video call with the International Olympic Committee on Sunday, November 21, Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai assured its president Thomas Bach that she was safe and well, living in her home in Beijing. The conversation between both parties was scheduled after photos and videos of Shuai playing at a tennis tournament in Beijing surfaced. But both interactions have done little to assuage the concerns of a global community troubled by Shuai's absence from public life for almost three weeks; following sexual assault allegations she levelled against former senior Chinese minister, Zhang Gaoli.
The allegations in question were published on Weibo from Peng Shuai's verified account. While the post itself was deleted a mere half hour after it was posted, many users were quick to screenshot it which according to The Guardian accused Gaoli of forcing Shuai to have sex in his home three years ago, after she was invited to play tennis with him and his wife.
While China has not been immune to the global #MeToo movement, which grew legs in the country in 2018 leading to the arrest of pop star Kris Wu and allegations against broadcasting host Zhu Jun, we had not yet seen any allegations made publicly against Chinese politicians. As such, a blanket censorship ban was put in place following Shuai's post on social media. Weibo users could no longer search for Peng's name, nor could they access her posts or comment on them. Even more ominously, the public had not heard a peep from Shuai for almost three weeks after her post was uploaded and swiftly taken down, raising concerns about her safety.
Is Peng Shuai Safe?
Although Peng had dinner with friends on Saturday, and photos and videos disseminated by Chinese state media journalists registered Peng's attendance at a children's tennis tournament in Beijing on Sunday, there is skepticism that these appearances may have been deliberately manufactured.
A spokesperson from the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) expressed this concern to Reuters. "It was good to see Peng Shuai in recent videos, but they don't alleviate or address the WTA's concern about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion."
The spokesperson also noted that this was only half the issue, calling for an immediate investigation into Peng Shuai's allegations against the senior Chinese minister. "This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern."
Many of Shuai's fellow tennis peers have come out in support of her, most notably Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams. On Twitter, Williams urged her followers to bring attention to Shuai's sudden disappearance, and rounded off the Tweet with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent. Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time. #whereispengshuai pic.twitter.com/GZG3zLTSC6
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) November 18, 2021
Naomi Osaka's own Tweet mirrored the sentiment of Williams'.
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) November 16, 2021
At the present moment, this is all we have learned about Shuai's sudden disappearance and the subsequent sightings of the tennis player. As the story continues to unfold, we will be sure to keep you updated. Watch this space.