An outcry over the whereabouts of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai escalated on Friday as the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) said it was prepared to pull its tournaments out of China if they were not satisfied with the response to her sexual assault allegation.
Former doubles world number one Peng has not been seen or heard from publicly since she said on Chinese social media in early November that former vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, coerced her into sex and they later had an on-off consensual relationship.
Neither Zhang or the Chinese government have commented on her allegation. Peng’s social media post was quickly deleted and the topic has been blocked from discussion on China’s heavily censored internet.
Concern among the global tennis community and beyond has grown over Peng’s safety and whereabouts since her allegation, with the WTA calling for an investigation and the world’s top players, including Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, tweeting #WhereIsPengShuai.
WTA chief executive Steve Simon told various U.S. media outlets on Thursday the tour would consider pulling tournaments worth tens of millions of dollars out of China.
“We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it,” he told CNN in an interview.
“Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business. Women need to be respected and not censored.”
Hu Xijin, a well-connected Chinese state media editor weighed in on the scandal on Twitter early on Friday, saying he did not believe she had been the target of retribution.
“As a person who is familiar with Chinese system, I don’t believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for the thing people talked about,” said Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, on Twitter.
The Global Times is published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, and Hu has an active presence on Twitter, which is blocked in China. He did not make any similar comment on his official account on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.
The issue has emerged as China prepares to host the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February amid calls from global rights groups and others for a boycott over its human rights record.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it would not comment on the matter.
“Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature,” an IOC spokesperson said. “This explains why the IOC will not comment any further at this stage.”
On Wednesday, WTA’s Simon cast doubt on an email, which was also released by a Chinese state media outlet on Twitter, purporting to be from Peng and denying the allegations of sexual assault.
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” he said.
By Friday, the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai had racked up over 32 million mentions on Facebook’s Instagram, which is also blocked in China, as well as Twitter, according to hashtag analysis website BrandMentions.
In contrast, the topic remains heavily censored in China’s tightly controlled cyberspace. As of Friday, searches for the WTA’s official account on Weibo yielded no results although its account remained available. Peng’s name on Weibo also continues to yield no search results.
Still, a handful of Chinese users took to the official Weibo accounts of tennis stars Williams and Novak Djokovic, who has also expressed shock at the situation, to thank them for releasing statements. “Thank you for speaking out!,” said one.