Chinese tennis star and former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion Peng Shuai has disappeared after being censored by China for making sexual allegations against a powerful politician. On Sunday, the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) called on Sunday for Peng's claims to be "investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship."
However, what is more worrying now is that Peng's whereabouts are not known and she hasn't been heard of since making the allegations of sexual assault against the former political leader. On Sunday, current and former players took to social media to express fear for Peng's the safety but the Chinese government so far has maintained silence.
Peng, 35, one of China's most recognizable tennis stars, accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her to have sex at his home three years ago, according to screenshots of a since-deleted social media post dated November 2. She also alleged that Gaoli, who became a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, later had an on-off consensual relationship with her.
Peng made the allegations on Weibo but deleted them within 30 minutes saying that she could provide no evidence to back her allegations.
What's more shocking is that Peng has not been seen in public since the accusation and her whereabouts are unknown. Her Weibo account, which has more than half a million followers, is still blocked from searchers on the platform after the Chinese government censored her for making the damaging allegations.
In the post, Peng wrote that Gaoli, now 75, and his wife arranged to play tennis in Beijing about three years ago and that he later brought her into a room at his home where the assault occurred. "I was so frightened that afternoon, never thinking that this thing could happen," the post read.
Life in Danger
Gaoli retired in 2018 and hasn't been seen much in public life, as is usual with former Chinese officials. Peng's allegation at the same time once again adds fodder to overseas reports of affairs between younger women and leading Chinese officials, including the founder of the People's Republic, Mao Zedong.
Meanwhile, the WTA on Sunday urged the Chinese government to break its silence on Peng's disappearance and to investigate allegations of sexual assault made by her against Gaoli, insisting the former top-ranked doubles player should be "heard, not censored."
In a statement, WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said Peng's accusations were of "deep concern" adding the allegations must be investigated "fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship."
"Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored," Simon said. "Her accusation about the conduct of a former Chinese leader involving a sexual assault must be treated with the utmost seriousness."
Former and current tennis players too have showed their concern about Peng's disappearance. Former top ranking Czech American tennis player Martina Navratilova said she supported the WTA's call for an investigation. "A very strong stance by the WTA â and the correct stance," she wrote on Twitter.
The Chinese Communist Party has increasingly cracked down on civil society, including the #MeToo movement that has struggled to gain traction in the country. The China Tennis Association is also yet to comment on the allegations.
China's internet is heavily censored and the private lives of top leaders are an especially sensitive subject. It is the first time that such charges have been made against a senior politician there, and the married Zhang is yet to respond.