When Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai went public with a bombshell sexual assault accusation against a retired top official, China’s response was to censor all discussion of the allegation internally—and dismiss growing international concern over Peng’s whereabouts and safety.
But China’s attempt to make Peng’s #MeToo allegation disappear—most recently by releasing an email purportedly from Peng that says she is safe and denies the initial sexual assault accusation—has only intensified international scrutiny.
The Women’s Tennis Association, which catapulted Peng’s story into the international spotlight, has doubled down on its demands for an explanation from China and proof that she is safe. WTA CEO and Chairman Steve Simon told CNN Thursday that the organization is “willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it.” Simon previously touted a $1 billion investment by China into women’s tennis.
The sport’s biggest names—Serena Williams, Billie Jean King, Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka—have also come out in support of Peng.
Peng’s allegation is believed to be the first of its kind directed at a high-ranking Chinese government official. The controversy is putting a spotlight on China’s #MeToo movement and the treatment of sports stars who speak up, just months before the country opens the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Here’s what you need to know about Peng Shai and her accusations.
Peng Shuai is who?
Peng (35), a Hunan native, was born in Hunan. The first Chinese tennis player to achieve a top ranking after she became the world’s No. She was the No.1 doubles player for 2014
There have been 23 doubles championships at the tour level for her. These include Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014—both with Taiwanese player Hsieh Su-wei.
Peng represented China as wellIt has been done three timesIn the Olympics, Most recently, in 2016.
Peng is claiming that there are other things.
A post that appeared on Peng’s Weibo account—China’s Twitter-like platform—on Nov. 2, said that retired Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli—once part of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body—coerced Peng into having sex with him. She later had an off-and-on relationship with the Chinese official, according to this post.
About 30 minutes after it was posted, the message vanished. However, photos were still shared across social media sites outside China as well as private WeChat groups and iMessage group in China. Reuters.
The post said Peng’s relationship with Zhang dated back to 2011. Peng was invited over by Zhang’s wife for dinner three years back, where he forced her to have sex.
After that, their relationship restarted—but Peng reportedly got angry over Zhang’s insistence on keeping their relationship secret, and had tried to meet him to air her grievances Before she uploaded to WeiboAccording to the message.
Learn more Asia’s #MeToo Takes on a Whole New Life
Peng stated that Peng could not support her accusations. TIME couldn’t independently verify the content or validity of either the post.
Did Peng disappear? Do you think she is safe?
After posting the message, Peng made no further public statements and was not seen publicly, prompting concerns about her safety in a country that has swiftly silenced even the most famous and powerful public figures—including Jack Ma is the founder of Alibaba.
State-owned broadcaster CGTN published a screenshot of a message that Peng purportedly sent to Simon on Nov. 18. Peng’s message said she was safe and added that she has just been “staying at home.” The message also said sexual assault allegations attributed to her were false.
However, this hasn’t dispelled concerns about her safety. Simon, in a statement, said he had “a hard time” believing Peng wrote the e-mail.
“Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government,” Simon Responded. “The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe.”
Simon TIME reported earlierPeng did not get a personal conversation with him, but he said he was worried about her.
He CNN Interview Thursday, Simon added that he felt the email was a “staged statement” since he responded immediately after without receiving a proper reply. “At this point I don’t think there’s any validity in it and we won’t be comfortable until we have a chance to speak with her,” he said.
How do Chinese officials handle the claims?
State-controlled media has largely been silent on Peng’s allegation, and officials have worked to swiftly censor any conversation about her post. Searching for Peng’s account on Weibo was blocked and commenting on her account was suspended.
When a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson was asked about the athlete’s allegations on Nov. 3, he said he was unawareThis is the problem. TIME has reached out to China’s State Council Information Office for comment.
It is rare to make a public accusation of a high-ranking official. However, Leta Hong Finncher, the author of Leta Hong Fincher’s book, claims that similar incidents have been reported by other Chinese women. Betraying Big Brother: China’s Feminist Awakening.
“Everybody knows about that kind of culture,” Fincher says. “But this is the first time we’ve actually had a specific accusation aimed at an extremely senior retired Communist Party official. Nonetheless, he’s retired, but he was the vice premier. And it’s very hard to go any higher than that other than the president of China himself.”
The swift censorship of Peng’s case is a contrast to how China handled other prominent #MeToo cases this year. Chinese beauty media influencer Du Meizhu charged a Canadian-Chinese pop star Kris WuIt was alleged that she and others had raped her, as well as minors. This became a topic of hot debate on Weibo with the state media even addressing it. Berating the idol.
Wu’s response was in keeping with a crackdown against celebrity culture. Many observers suspect this attempt to maintain a Communist-influenced youth.
Learn more China’s Tech Crackdown Could Make US Regulation More Likely
What is the reaction of the international tennis community?
WTA called for China to investigate the accusations against Zhang. The men’s tennis governing body (ATP) The probe was supported by the public.
The WTA chair lauded Peng for voicing those allegations “knowing full well” what the results will be. “For us to not support that and demand justice as we go through it—you know we have to start, as a world, making decisions based upon right and wrong,” Simon CNN.
Other tennis stars expressed concern over Peng’s absence, including former world No. 1. Players Serena Williams (Serena), Chris Evert and Billie Jean King. Novak Djokovic, the current men’s world No. 1 described Peng’s case as “It is shocking.” Naomi Osaka decried the censorship of Peng and said she hopes the Chinese player and her family are safe.
Learn more Steve Simon (WTA CEO) on His Fight to Find Peng Shuai
How does that affect the future of Chinese tennis in China?
Tennis is a big deal in China: more than one-fifth of the world’s 87 million tennis players come from the country, according to the International Tennis Federation.
It is unclear how calls for Chinese action in Peng’s case will affect tennis in the country. China has responded to critics in numerous ways. This was most evident when Chinese broadcasts of NBA basketball were cut off on Chinese televisions, especially after Daryl Morey, then general manager for the Houston Rockets posted a tweet in which he expressed solidarity with Hong Kong protesters.
Continue reading: China’s NBA: A Full-Court Press Release on Freedom of Speech
The risk of being at-risk could be A 10-year deal to hold the women’s season finals in Shenzhen, which are set to resume in 2022 as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes. As part of the deal, Chinese organizers had made $1 billion.
But the WTA chair said he was more concerned about Peng’s welfare and the integrity of the sport. “We’re at a crossroads with our relationship, obviously, with China and operating our business over there,” he told CNN. “It’s something that’s actually very sad because we have some amazing relationships over there and developed some unbelievable programs that are really introducing the sport to a lot of young Chinese players that want to become the next Li Na or the next Peng Shuai.”