By Chloe Hadavas, an assistant editor at Foreign Policy.
The disappearance of one of China’s top tennis players has brought the sport into a geopolitical firestorm. Peng Shuai, formerly the world No. 1 in doubles, hasn’t been seen in public since she accused a senior Chinese Communist Party official of sexual assault nearly three weeks ago. In recent days, the international tennis community—including the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), the sport’s main organizing body—has rallied to her cause, along with seemingly almost every other pro tennis player.
On Wednesday, with the situation getting “creepier by the second,” as one former tennis player described it, the WTA received an email purporting to be from the 35-year-old Peng, in which she allegedly claimed that “I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.” But the world remains deeply skeptical. As concern heightens, the #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag is trending on Twitter, and a growing number of prominent voices, from Serena Williams to the United Nations to Human Rights Watch, are joining the chorus of those decrying her disappearance—or at least calling for an investigation—with far-reaching consequences for China and for the sport itself.
Who is Peng Shuai, and what did she say happened?
Peng, who’s known for her signature two-handed forehand and backhand, is one of the stars who, alongside players such as Li Na, helped popularize tennis in China. As a doubles player, she won two Grand Slam titles: Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014. She hasn’t competed since February 2020 but is still omnipresent in the minds of tennis players and the world at large, especially this month.
On Nov. 2, Peng accused former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex. Her allegations, which she posted on the Chinese social media app Weibo, detailed the events themselves and the emotional toll they took on her. Zhang, Peng claimed, invited her to play tennis, and then he and his wife brought her to their house, where he forced Peng to have sex with him. “I couldn’t describe how disgusted I was and how many times I asked myself, ‘Am I still a human?’” she wrote in a post that was deleted 30 minutes after it went up. “I feel like a walking corpse. Every day I was acting. Which person is the real me?”
Why are these allegations such a big deal to Beijing?
Peng’s allegations are a huge deal in China—the first time an alleged victim has directly accused a senior party official of sexual assault; the #MeToo movement has yet to reach the upper rungs of the Communist Party.
Beijing has barely commented on the allegations—Foreign Ministry spokespeople dismissed it as an internal matter—but censorship was quick. Not only was Peng’s post deleted just after it was published, but references to it on Chinese social media were also restricted, as were searches to related keywords such as “tennis” and Peng’s initials. The word “melon,” a slang term for a piece of gossip, was temporarily banned on Weibo, alongside the melon emoji.
So what’s the deal with the “creepy” email?
The purported message from Peng rang so hollow for so many people that alarm bells immediately sounded. The screenshot released by Chinese media included the blinking cursor of whoever—likely not Peng—wrote it. The letter meant for the head of the WTA was also headed: “Hello everyone.”
China, like many authoritarian states, is so used to mishandling truth that it has trouble even feigning its appearance. Unlike during the Soviet Union, and even in post-Soviet Russia, Chinese propagandists are a clumsy bunch, largely cut off from the real world and how their messages are perceived. With hardly any internal media market, state media presentations are often hamfisted.
Steve Simon, the chairman and CEO of the WTA, said he doesn’t believe that message came from Peng at all and wants to hear from her directly. It’s common for such letters, in which the victim praises the party and says all is well, to be sent to the families of detainees in China. The mistake may have been not realizing that an intimidation technique that works at home might backfire overseas.
Who’s speaking out?
Simon, for starters. He said on Thursday that the organization is prepared to pull out of China, where it has 10 events scheduled in 2022. “We are at a crossroads with our relationship, obviously, with China and operating our business over there,” Simon told CNN. “Women need to be respected and not censored.” Simon also said there needs to be an investigation into Peng’s whereabouts.
That stands in sharp contrast to the National Basketball Association’s abject surrender to Chinese pressure over comments made by a team executive in 2019; the league quickly rolled over, threw the Houston Rockets executive under the bus, and continued doing business with China. Individual NBA players have continued to raise human rights concerns about China, most notably Enes Kanter, who has railed against the league’s (and his fellow players’) acquiescence of China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other minority groups.
The International Tennis Federation and the United Nations have both said they support an investigation. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have also weighed in, calling on the world to take action.
And most of the tennis constellation has spoken out as well, including Williams, Andy Murray, Naomi Osaka, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Stan Wawrinka, Simona Halep, Patrick McEnroe, Novak Djokovic, and others. “I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai,” Williams tweeted on Thursday. “This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.”
British tennis player Emma Raducanu, this year’s U.S. Open champion, who is half-Chinese and is expected to make millions of dollars by tapping into the Chinese market, is one of the few yet to speak out. Famous athletes from other sports, including Spanish soccer player Gerard Piqué, and Hollywood celebrities such as Mia Farrow have also shared #WhereIsPengShuai on Twitter.
What does this all mean for China?
This moment—and the WTA’s stance in particular—marks a turning point for China. International players and organizations are putting their values over business interests. As Simon told CNN, this is a matter of making decisions “based upon right and wrong, period.”
The fallout comes just as Beijing is preparing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, already under the shadow of a potential U.S. diplomatic boycott over China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere. Uyghur activists and others have been lobbying for a wider boycott of the games, meaning U.S. politicians, especially Republicans, are primed to speak on the issue. (One, Rep. Jim Banks, has pressed President Joe Biden on the issue.)
“This is an absolutely looming disaster for the Chinese government,” William Nee, a research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, told CNN. “Every day that gets closer to the Winter Olympics, the disaster gets bigger and bigger for them—if they don’t resolve this.”
The International Olympic Committee, true to form, said “quiet diplomacy” is the best medicine.