On the courts, 35-year-old Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai is a tour de force. She’s a three-time Olympian who has won 25 tour titles over the course of her career, and her trailblazing success has helped to propel women’s tennis to new heights in China. Then, this November, she disappeared.
The circumstances of Shuai’s disappearance are disconcerting: On November 2, Shuai accused Zhang Gaoli, China’s former vice-premier under Xi Jinping, of sexual assault in a post on Weibo, a Chinese social-media platform. The post was taken down minutes after it went up and subsequently scrubbed from the Weibo search engine. Not only was Shuai scrubbed from the internet; she went missing in real life, too: After posting the allegation, which is the first public Me Too accusation against a high-ranking Communist Party official in China, Shuai wasn’t seen in public for two weeks, sparking concern for her safety. In response to an international outcry, the Chinese government has made concerted (but unconvincing) efforts to prove that Shuai is okay — claiming that she’s just “resting at home.”
But many still aren’t buying it. Here, what to know about Shuai’s disappearance:
Shuai accused Gaoli of coercing her into sex at his home.
On November 2, in a post written as a direct address to Gaoli, Shuai wrote that in 2018, Gaoli, who is 75, invited her to play tennis with him and his wife. She said that the three of them went to Gaoli’s home afterward and that Gaoli coerced her into having sex with him. “I did not consent that first afternoon. I cried the whole time … After dinner, when I was still reluctant, you said that you hated me,” she wrote. In the post, she also recounted having had consensual sex with Gaoli ten years earlier, when he was the party chief of Tianjin, and addressed the fact that she had no physical evidence of the assault: “You were always afraid I would make recordings and keep them as evidence. In fact I have no evidence or proof other than my own word,” Shuai wrote. “But even if it’s just me, like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you.” Shuai also wrote that the trauma left her feeling “like a walking corpse.”
Shuai’s accusations were quickly wiped from the web.
In China’s heavily monitored, censorship-heavy cyberspace, the post was taken down in half an hour, and searches for “tennis,” “Peng Shuai,” and “Zhang Gaoli” were temporarily blocked. Private accounts that sent screenshots of the post were suspended. Meanwhile, Shuai hadn’t been heard from since posting the accusation. Around the world, while support for Shuai continued to grow, many began to worry for her safety. A number of tennis stars, including Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Billie Jean King, and Rafael Nadal, denounced censorship and expressed their concerns for Shuai. In advance of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, the Biden administration and the United Nations demanded proof of her well-being. Steve Simon, head of the Women’s Tennis Association, told CNN that he was prepared to pull its business in China in response to what had happened. “This is bigger than the business,” Simon said. “Women need to be respected and not censored.”
The Chinese government has tried to argue that Shuai is fine, but its evidence looks suspicious to many.
On November 17, the CGTN — an official news-media organization under the control of the Chinese Communist Party’s publicity department — tweeted out a photo of a purported message from Peng Shuai to Simon, though it did not manage to reassure many.
“Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai,” read the message, which was written in English. It went on to recant Shuai’s allegations of sexual assault as “not true” and also denied her disappearance. “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.” In a statement posted to the WTA website, Simon called for independent verification of Shuai’s whereabouts and safety. He said the suspicious email only raised his concerns about Shuai, adding that he had tried to reach her through numerous forms of communication “to no avail.”
Then a number of suspicious photos and videos of Shuai emerged. On November 19, a Chinese state-television employee posted photos of Shuai on Twitter, alleging that her friend shared the photos from her WeChat moments. The photos are captioned “Happy Weekend” and picture Shuai playing with a gray cat and holding up a panda figurine in a selfie, though it’s not clear when they were taken. Chinese state television also tweeted a video of Shuai eating with her coach at a Beijing restaurant. In the video, the coach asks Shuai: “It’s November 21 tomorrow, right?” The date is repeated three more times in the video, though Shuai never speaks. Another state official tweeted a video of Shuai purportedly attending a Beijing tennis final.
Teng Biao, a civil-rights lawyer from China, told the New York Times that the videos “can only prove that Peng Shuai is alive, but nothing else. They cannot prove that Peng Shuai is free.”
The International Olympic Committee has come under scrutiny for its response.
In light of Shuai’s disappearance, there have been mounting calls to the International Olympic Committee to move the Winter Olympics out of Beijing. In early December, the Biden administration announced a “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Olympics, citing “genocide and crimes against humanity,” referring to Chinese abuses of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region. As a result, no American officials will attend the games, though U.S. athletes will still be able to compete. New Zealand, Australia, and the U.K. have all followed suit.
Meanwhile, several organizations — including Human Rights Watch, the Sports & Rights Alliance, the Army of Survivors, and the World Players Association — have called on the IOC to use its sway to ensure Shuai’s safety, but the IOC has so far done little. On November 21, the IOC claimed to have had a call with Shuai, and though no transcripts or footage were released, IOC chairman Dick Pound insisted Shuai appeared “fine,” a claim that was met with more suspicion and outrage. On December 2, the IOC announced it had a second video call with Shuai, claiming it was using a “human and person-centered approach” and “quiet diplomacy” to address the situation. The IOC again claimed Shuai appeared “safe and well.” Meanwhile, Peter Dahlin, director of the human-rights NGO Safeguard Defenders, has said IOC’s calls with Shuai are “obviously staged” and put her safety “at greater risk.” In an open letter to the IOC on the organization’s website, Dahlin said Shuai’s appearance on these video calls is a practice “eerily similar to a recurrent CCP tactic of stage-managed TV appearances, where victims are paraded and forced to perform by the police, often in an effort to counter international criticism.”
On December 3, the Women’s Tennis Association announced its decision to suspend all tournaments in China and Hong Kong. Simon released another statement saying the situation with Shuai was “unacceptable.”
“If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug,” Simon wrote, “then the basis on which the WTA was founded — equality for women — would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”
In a suspicious new interview, Shuai recanted her sexual-assault allegation.
On December 19, Lianhe Zaobao, a Chinese-language Singaporean newspaper, published a video interview with Shuai that appears to be the latest attempt by Chinese officials to assuage global concern for her safety. In the video, a journalist claims to have run into Shuai on the sidelines of a Shanghai skiing event and proceeds to ask her a series of pointed questions about her allegations, prompting her to again retract her accusation of sexual assault.
“First and foremost, I must emphasize I have never said or wrote about anyone sexually assaulting me,” Shuai told the journalist — a strange assertion, considering that the initial Weibo post detailed an alleged sexual assault at length. “I know there are many misunderstandings,” she added. Addressing her rehearsed public appearances and correspondences, Shuai further claims that she wrote the email to Simon denying the assault and that the CGTN merely translated it. She denies that she’s been under house arrest, claiming that she’s “free to go” as she pleases. Shuai says she’s not traveling or competing because of the pandemic but will continue attending games.
Shuai also denies being monitored. “Why would anyone monitor me?” she said. “I have always been free.” Yet for many human-rights officials and experts, the video, and Shaui’s reversal of her allegations, has only sparked further suspicions.
This post has been updated.