A Chinese tennis star accused a former high-ranking government official of sexual assault, setting off a #MeToo crisis in the sports and political worlds. The athlete, Peng Shuai, has largely disappeared from public view, her tennis colleagues are worried and the International Olympic Committee is under criticism for its response. Here's a look at the allegations and what followed.
Who is Peng Shuai?
Peng Shuai is a Chinese Grand Slam doubles champion who was once ranked Number 1 in doubles and Number 14 in singles, according to The New York Times. She has won 25 titles on tour, including Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014, in doubles and reached the semifinals at the U.S. Open in 2014 in singles, ESPN reported. Her last appearance was at the Qatar Total Open in 2020. She is 35, and has mostly disappeared from public view since Nov. 2 when she accused former vice premier Zhang Gaoli, 75, of sexual assault in a social media post.
Get Connecticut local news, weather forecasts and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Connecticut newsletters.
What has Peng alleged?
Peng Shuai made the sexual assault allegation against Zhang on Nov. 2 on her verified account on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. The post was taken down within 20 minutes, but screen shots of it went viral. The New York Times reported that in it she wrote that Zhang sexually assaulted her after his retirement in 2018, after he had invited her to play tennis with him and his wife. Peng, who said she had had an earlier on-and-off relationship with Zhang, also wrote that she could not corroborate her allegation.
Who is Zhang Gaoli?
Zhang was once one of China’s most powerful officials under President Xi Jinping. The New York Times reported that Chinese media described him as a “stern, low-key, taciturn” technocrat whose interests included tennis, chess and books. He had until now avoided scandals. He retired in 2018 and has not commented on the allegation.
How is the International Olympic Committee reacting?
Beijing is to host the Winter Olympics, scheduled to begin Feb. 4., and the International Olympic Committee has moved cautiously. The committee’s president, Thomas Bach, said in late November that he and two other officials had spoken with Peng on a video call. He said that she reported that she was doing well, that she was living at her home in Beijing and that she has asked for privacy. The call failed to appease human rights activists. Amnesty International warned the IOC not to participate in any “whitewash of possible human rights violations,” Reuters reported.
On Dec. 2, the committee said in a statement that it was concerned about the well-being of the three-time Olympian, had had a second video call with her on Dec. 1 and was planning a meeting with her in January.
"We are using 'quiet diplomacy' which, given the circumstances and based on the experience of governments and other organizations, is indicated to be the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters," it said in its statement.
Tennis stars rally for Peng
Tennis stars from around the world who were worried about her safety rallied for Peng. They promoted the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai across social media. Her supporters include some of tennis’ biggest names, among them Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic.
"I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai," Williams tweeted. "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."
Since then the Chinese foreign ministry said Peng had attended public events, and she was shown in a 25-second video of the opening ceremony of the Fila Kids Junior Tennis Challenger Final in Beijing on Nov. 21.
Tennis association suspends play in China
The Women’s Tennis Association has suspended all tournaments in China, on the mainland and in Hong Kong, as of Dec. 1. The association’s chairman, Steve Simon, accused Chinese leadership of failing to address the issues surrounding Shuai’s allegation credibly. “While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation,” Simon said in a statement.
Several tennis tournaments are scheduled for China for next year, including the WTA finals, but Simon said he could not ask the players to compete there when, he said, Peng Shuai is seemingly under pressure to contradict her allegation.
“Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022,” he said.
The International Tennis Federation does not intend to follow suit. Its president, David Haggerty, told the BBC that it has no plans to suspend play in China. The federation, which oversees the Billie Jean King Cup and the Davis Cup, agrees the allegations need to be investigated but will work behind the scenes, he said.
"We don’t want to punish a billion people, so we will continue to run our junior events in the country and our senior events that are there for the time being," he said.