Peng Shuai, a star Chinese women’s tennis player, is missing — and a note supposedly written by her has only further fueled the mystery of her whereabouts.
The 35-year-old Shuai — who was the No. 1 women’s doubles player in the world in the early 2010s, and reached as high as 14 in the singles rankings — recently accused a prominent former Chinese politician, Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault. In a long and impassioned post on China’s popular social media platform Weibo, she detailed a long relationship with Gaoli, who served as vice-premier under Xi Jinping, and accused him of having sex with her against her will three years ago.
Shuai’s accusation was the first Me Too charge leveled against a high-ranking Chinese official, and the country’s censorship machine immediately rolled into action. Shuai’s post was deleted within minutes, and searches for her on social media were limited to information about her tennis career. China has all but scrubbed the story from its firewalled internet; even private messages that mention the story are subject to meddling:
More disturbingly, Shuai has disappeared from public view since she made her accusation on November 2. In recent days, her plight has gained increasing attention in the West through prominent tennis players like Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic, and the hashtag #whereispengshuai is trending on Twitter.
On Wednesday, Chinese state media released an email Shuai had supposedly sent to the chairman of the Women’s Tennis Association, which stated that her allegations against Gaoli were false and that she was doing totally fine — merely “resting at home.” (The email was published on Twitter, which is banned in China.)
The transparently weird, hostage-like tone did not mollify anyone. The recipient of the message, Steve Simon, said in a statement that “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her” and that the note “only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.”
Now, the WTA is threatening to pull tournaments out of China unless there is a satisfactory investigation into Shuai’s actual whereabouts. (This is a more aggressive posture than other sports leagues have taken toward China in recent years.) And the story may soon take on even more international import, since China is hosting the Winter Olympics in three months. The country is already facing calls for boycotts over its treatment of Uighurs and other human-rights abuses, and the U.S. is reportedly considering the diplomatic version of such a boycott. Shuai’s case may make its decision easier and make other countries reevaluate their own commitments to the Games.