Where Is Peng Shuai? A Timeline Of Events Surrounding The Chinese Tennis Star - Women's Health

Where Is Peng Shuai? A Timeline Of Events Surrounding The Chinese Tennis Star

After accusing a powerful Communist Party official of sexual assault in early November, Peng Shuai disappeared. Even since releasing video footage, there are mounting fears for her safety.

It’s been almost 19 days since Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai was seen in the public. After accusing a former Chinese Community party leader of sexual assault in early November, the world watched with growing alarm as Peng Shuai disappeared from public view. Her accusations were urgent, demanding answers and with them, justice. But in a second it all seemed to be erased from collective memory, with Peng Shuai’s whereabouts unknown, despite growing alarm sounding from within the WTA and tennis community. 

35-year-old Peng, who is a former world number one in doubles, spoke up against the powerful Chinese politician accused of sexually assaulting her. In doing so, it marked the first time the #MeToo movement struck the top echelons of China’s ruling Communist Party. The former French Open and Wimbledon doubles champion claimed retired Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli forced her into sex three years ago in a since-deleted online post to the Chinese social media site, Weibo. 

Since making the claims, Peng hasn’t been seen in public since. Tennis stars have spoken out in support of Peng, with Novak Djokovic calling her disappearance “shocking”, while Chris Evert described the situation as “disturbing”. Naomi Osaka has expressed concern for Peng’s safety, while Billie Jean King wrote that she hopes Peng is found. Serena Williams also expressed her alarm on Twitter, writing in a post: “I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.”

As concern for Peng’s safety grows, here’s a timeline of events surrounding the situation and the latest updates concerning her location.

Nov 2: Peng Shuai makes sexual assault allegations against Zhang

In a 1,600-word post to Weibo, Peng accused the 75-year-old Zhang – a former leader with China’s Communist Party – of pressuring her into sex around three years ago. Peng claimed the assault occurred after Zhang invited her to play tennis with him and his wife at their home, but admitted she had no evidence. “I was so scared that afternoon,” wrote Peng, who said a guard stood watch outside the door while the assault occurred. “I never gave consent, crying the entire time.”

“I know that for someone of your stature, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you have said that you are not afraid,” wrote Peng. “But even if it is like throwing an egg against rock, or if I am like a moth to the flame, inviting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you.”

The post was deleted within 30 minutes and Chinese censors also blocked a number of search terms, including Peng’s name. 

Nov 14: WTA chief executive calls for investigation into the situation

After Peng disappeared from the public for 12 days, Steve Simon, WTA’s chief executive, called for a “full, fair and transparent” investigation into her allegations. Peng’s disappearance also prompted the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai to spread across social media as her story became known internationally. 

In an interview with the New York Times, Simon said: “Obviously she displayed tremendous courage going public. Now we want to make sure we’re moving forward to a place where a full and transparent investigation is conducted. Anything else, I think, is an affront to not only our players but to all women.”

Simon also threatened to pull the WTA’s business from China if the country failed to properly investigate Peng’s allegations. While unable to confirm Peng’s whereabouts or condition, Simon told the Times that several sources had told him she was “safe and not under any physical threat.”

Nov 15: China stays silent 

Despite calls for urgent action, China remained silent on the matter of Peng Shuai and her disappearance. When Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijan was asked about the tennis star’s allegations, he said “this is not a diplomatic question” before adding that he had “not heard of the issue.” Even 13 days after Peng’s post, China had yet to acknowledge the star or her accusations. 

Nov 17: WTA questions legitimacy of Peng Shuai statement 

An email allegedly sent from Peng claimed the WTA did not get her consent or verification before releasing its statement. It came as Peng’s first public comments since her allegations, but many were quick to question the legitimacy of the statement issued. 

“The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true,” the email, which was also tweeted out by China state-affiliated media China Global Television Network, read. “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine,” it said. 

Simon questioned whether Peng was coerced into writing it. “The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts. Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source,” he wrote. 

Nov 18: WTA threatens to pull Chinese business 

Simon threatened to pull the WTA’s business from China if it wouldn’t confirm Peng’s safety and investigate her allegations, despite the organisation having expanded its reach int he country over the past several years. In an interview with CNN, he explained: “We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it. Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business.”

He added, “Women need to be respected and not censored.”

Nov 19: China says it is ‘not aware’ of Peng Shuai situation

The Associated Press reports that China’s Foreign Ministry is unaware of the situation surrounding Peng Shuai. Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the United Nations human rights office in Geneva, said the situation called for an “investigation with full transparency into her allegations of sexual assault.” The International Olympic Committee however, declined to comment on the matter. 

White House and UN call for investigation into Peng situation

Breaking its silence, the White House demanded proof of Peng’s safety and further condemned China’s censorship. Press secretary Jen Psaki said the White House is “deeply concerned” over the tennis star’s disappearance and seeks “independent and verifiable proof” of her location and condition. 

US President Joe Biden said he was “considering” a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing due to the country’s handling of human rights issues. “First, any report of sexual assault should be investigated, and we support a woman’s ability to speak out and seek accountability whether here or around the world. Second, we will continue to stand up for the freedom of speech, and we know that the PRC has zero tolerance for criticism and a record of silencing those that speak out, and we continue to condemn those practices.”

The UN joined the White House’s defence of Peng, with the UN Human Rights Office spokesperson Liz Throssell calling for an investigation. “What we would say is that it would be important to have proof of her whereabouts and wellbeing, and we would urge that there be an investigation with full transparency into her allegations of sexual assault,” said Throssell. 

Nov 20: Chinese state media release footage of Peng 

A video of Peng dining in Beijing was released by Chinese state media, a day after it claimed the tennis star had shared photos on the Chinese social media platform, WeChat. Global Times editor Hu Xijing who posted the video on Twitter, said the dinner took place on the weekend and included Peng’s friends and coach. 

WTA CEO Steve Simon said seeing Peng in the video was a “positive” development, but described the evidence as “insufficient” and remains “concerned about Peng Shuai’s health and safety, and that the allegation of sexual assault is being censored and swept under the rug.”

“It remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external influence,” said Simon. 

Nov 21: IOC holds video call with Peng

The IOC announced that president Thomas Bach held a video call with Peng in which she claimed to be safe. According to a statement, the two were accompanied on the call by Chinese sport official Li Lingwei as well as the Chair of the Athletes’ Commission Emma Terho. 

The statement said Peng thanked the committee for its concern about her wellbeing and insisted she was safe and well at her home in Beijing, but she wanted to “have her privacy respected at this time. That is why she prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now.”

A statement by Terho added, “I was relieved to see that Peng Shuai was doing fine, which was our main concern. She appeared to be relaxed. I offered her our support and to stay in touch at any time of her convenience, which she obviously appreciated.”

By Jessica Campbell

Jess is a storyteller committed to sharing the human stories that lie at the heart of sport.

Recommended to you

More From