Peng Shuai is a 35-year old Chinese professional tennis player. In 2014, she became the first-ever tennis player from China to be ranked world number 1 doubles player. In addition to winning titles at Wimbledon and the French Open, one of Peng’s greatest accomplishments is being a three-time Olympian that has played the sport for over 20 years.
On November 2, Peng posted on her social media account that the former Chinese Vice Premier, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her. Gaoli was on the Politburo Standing Committee (a governmental body that is made up of China’s top leaders) so he is very well-known as one of the country’s most powerful men. Peng said that she had an on-and-off relationship with him. However, this relationship sometimes involved coercion and forced sex. These were serious allegations and Peng’s post was quickly removed and her Weibo social media account was blocked afterward. More alarmingly, Peng suddenly disappeared for several weeks following her allegations. Her online silence and physical vanishing sparked concerns among Chinese citizens and the worldwide tennis community about Peng’s safety. In fact, the head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), Steven Simon, repeatedly tried to get in contact with Peng through different forms of communication but was ultimately unsuccessful.
A few weeks later, Chinese state media released videos of Peng as a guest for a youth match at Beijing’s National Tennis Center. Peng appeared to be in good spirits, as she was seen smiling throughout the videos. Later that day, Peng attended a video conference call with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in which she stated that she was safe and requested her privacy. Although she appeared to be well in both cases, many questioned the authenticity of these recordings. Some believe that they don’t necessarily mean that she is free. The WTA expressed concern about the possibility of the videos being staged and suspected that Peng was being coerced to appear cheerful and state that everything was fine. On December 1, the WTA suspended all tournaments in China until Chinese leaders allowed for a full and truthful investigation into Peng’s sexual assault allegation. This is to protest the Chinese government’s handling of the situation and to be held accountable.
Not only is this case important in shedding light on Chinese women’s rights to be free from sexual harassment, but it also calls attention to freedom of speech in China, a country that does not allow that. By being one of the faces of Chinese sports and having such a national spotlight, Peng’s willingness to speak up is powerful for people that don’t have a voice under the Chinese government. Some people, such as junior high school tennis player Daniel Martinez, believe “her resurfacing after so much controversy with smiles shows that she may be in danger. We still don’t know who was in the room with her during her video call and what threats she may be facing. It’s a tricky situation without the full picture.”
Others believe that the Chinese government has a lot of influence on this situation. A high school student, Matt Chen says that “it’s interesting that the Chinese government and officials haven’t investigated the accusations, especially since Peng is so well-known in the Chinese community.” Even though there are many uncertainties regarding the situation, what is certain is that one of China’s most notable icons has been restrained from interactions with the public.
Sports and Wellness Editor
Graphic: Jiah Lee