The Chinese regime is facing mounting pressure after the United Nations (U.N.) and the White House on Nov. 19 joined a growing cohort of bodies and individuals calling for proof of the whereabouts of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai.
Peng, a former number-one ranked tennis doubles player, disappeared from the public eye after making a rare public sexual assault allegation against a retired top Chinese Communist Party official on Nov. 2. The 35-year-old, in a social media post, accused former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex several years ago, adding that they later had an on-and-off consensual relationship.
“I know you will deny it and you will get back at me,” Peng told the accused in her now-deleted comments. The 1,500-character post was up for around half an hour before being taken down, but the claims later reverberated across the country’s heavily censored internet.
The White House on Friday called for the Chinese government to provide “independent, verifiable proof” of Peng’s whereabouts and safety.
“We are deeply concerned by reports that Peng Shuai appears to be missing after accusing a former [People’s Republic of China] senior official of sexual assault,” said spokesperson Jen Psaki.
“We’ll continue to stand up for the freedom of speech and we know the PRC [People’s Republic of China] has zero-tolerance for criticism and a record of silencing those that speak out, and we continue to condemn those practices,” Psaki added.
Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for human rights, called for “an investigation with full transparency into her allegation of sexual assault” at a news briefing in Geneva on Friday.
The Chinese regime hasn’t acknowledged or commented on the allegation. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian, at a Friday press briefing, said the matter was not a diplomatic issue and declined to comment on it.
On Nov. 17, China’s state broadcaster released a screenshot of an email purported sent from Peng to the CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Steve Simon, saying that the sexual assault allegations were untrue and that she was fine. The purported email was only released on English-languaged platforms.
The alleged response only raised more doubts.
“The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” WTA’s Simon said in a Wednesday statement.
“The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe. I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail,” the statement read.
Simon told CNN in an interview on Nov.18 that the tour would consider pulling tournaments worth tens of millions of dollars out of China.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) applauded Simon’s remarks.
“Steve Simon and the @WTA are setting a far too rare example of standing up to the Chinese Communist Party’s brazen crimes and human rights abuses,” he wrote on Twitter on Friday.
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) November 19, 2021
The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai has so far racked up over 32 million mentions on Instagram and Twitter, according to hashtag analysis website BrandMentions. Both platforms are blocked in China.
In contrast, the topic remains heavily censored in China’s tightly controlled cyberspace. As of Friday, searches for the WTA’s official account on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform yielded no results, although its account remained available. Peng’s name on Weibo also continues to show no search results.
Many tennis players, including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, have also voiced their concerns over Peng’s safety. Tennis communities, such as the U.S Open Tennis and the Professional Tennis Players Association, have joined WTA, calling for independent evidence confirming Peng’s safety.
International lawmakers on Friday also urged Beijing to provide “verifiable guarantees” on her whereabouts.
“The PRC government has a known history of practicing enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions against those who dare to oppose its authoritarian rule, with torture, solitary confinement, and other abuses known to be used against victims of political persecution,” the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China said in a statement.
Reuters contributed to this report.