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The strange case of Peng Shuai
Sensemaker audio

The strange case of Peng Shuai

The strange case of Peng Shuai

A top Chinese woman tennis player alleged that a senior politician had sexually abused her – then she disappeared. Now Peng Shuai has resurfaced, but is she safe?


Transcript
Nimo Omer, narrating:

Hi, I’m Nimo and this is the Sensemaker.

One story, everyday, to make sense of the world.

Today, the disappearance of China’s leading tennis player.   Where did she go? 

*** 

Video of missing Chinese tennis player in a restaurant

Sky

At first glance, the video I’m watching seems pretty normal.

It’s the professional tennis player, Peng Shuai, at a restaurant in Beijing. 

But there’s a reason why this seemingly innocuous video, of what looks like colleagues and friends having dinner, has gone viral. 

You see, this was the first sighting of Peng Shuai in weeks. 

She disappeared at the start of the month after posting a long statement to Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, accusing a former high ranking government official of sexually assaulting her.

The post was deleted within half an hour but no matter, the allegations spread like wildfire even through the heavily controlled confines of the Chinese internet. 

There’s been speculation that the Chinese government was responsible for Peng Shuai’s disappearance. That’s because it has form.  You see, Peng Shuai isn’t the first person to have disappeared… 

There was business magnate Jack Ma: 

Jack Ma has been noticeably silent after his high profile critical rebuke of Chinese regulators back in October. He was even a no-show for a television program that he himself had created, which is an African version of Shark Tank.

CNBC Television

Dissident artist Ai Weiwei: 

First the detention of one of the nations most famous artists and human rights activists, Ai Weiwei. He was arrested yesterday before boarding a flight to Hong Kong

PBS NewsHour

And there have been many others. So, has Peng Shuai joined their number?  Has she become another person lost within China’s security apparatus? 

*** 

Peng Shuai is a decorated athlete in the world of tennis. She was formerly ranked number 1 in women’s doubles and she won titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.

She’s also taken part in the Olympics three times. So when she disappeared, people noticed.

And with Beijing set to host the Winter Games starting February 4th, the international pressure on China has mounted.

The US President Joe Biden has got involved, while not commenting specifically on Peng he said they are considering a diplomatic boycott of next year’s winter olympics in china over human rights abuses.

Sky Sports News

But before we get to that, let’s take a step back to November 2nd – the day that Peng Shuai decided to make her sexual assault allegation public. 

The person she accused is the country’s former vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli.

Zhang served on the country’s supreme leadership body from 2012 to 2017. Since his retirement in 2018, he has all but faded  from public life. 

In her 1600-word post, Peng Shuai alleged that she and Zhang Gaoli, who is now 75, had had a consensual on-off affair for years. 

But, she said that around three years ago, Zhang sexually assaulted her at his house after he had invited her to play tennis with him and his wife. 

In the weeks since, Peng Shuai has been at the centre of international concern, with other tennis stars like Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams posting the hashtag “Where Is Peng Shuai?” to their millions of followers.

We would like actually to hear like a video from her or something like real proof that, yes that she’s all right and everything is fine. It’s a very strange situation and we really want to hear soon some news we are really sad about it 

Sky Sports News

The Chinese government hasn’t directly addressed the issue but in the last week state media has been posting “evidence” on Twitter that the tennis star is safe and sound.

First there was a dubious email – supposedly written by Peng Shuai – that was sent to the Women’s Tennis Association, the WTA. 

“Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai,” the email starts, “the news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true. I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.” 

But the email only raised more questions. 

The head of the women’s tennis association has said he finds it hard to believe that an email released by chinese state media and attributed to the tennis star Peng Shuai is authentic.

BBC

And that video of her at the restaurant didn’t do much to curb suspicions either. Instead of convincing onlookers that this was timely evidence that Peng Shuai was safe, it looked forced and a little staged.

And there are still big questions about whether or not she’s talking freely and of her own volition.

***

On Sunday, Peng Shuai held a 30-minute call with the President of the International Olympic Committee (the IOC). 

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai has spoken with the president of the olympic committee on a video call today.

CBS

She said that she was fine, and resting in her Beijing home. Many have pointed out that the IOC’s seemingly blanket acceptance of Peng’s current state puts them at risk of becoming part of Beijing’s propaganda.

There was no questioning of whether  she was being coerced to talk and no mention of the sexual assault allegations. We now know that Peng Shuai probably isn’t in any immediate physical danger but that isn’t likely to be enough. She’s become another face of China’s MeToo movement — and the world is looking on.