A growing drumbeat of support, concern, and skepticism about the whereabouts of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai is starting to threaten China’s place on the world’s sporting stage.
The head of the Women’s Tennis Association is now pledging to pull all tennis competitions out of China if the former Wimbledon doubles champion is not found soon. Peng, 35, dared to “tell the truth” about Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli coercing her into sex at his home and then forcing her to have an affair, in a social media post deleted by Chinese censors on Nov. 2.
No one has seen her since.
WTA chief Steve Simon said her safety is more important than the game and that an email purported to be from her which denied her earlier claims and said she was “just fine” was almost certainly fake. “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 in a statement posted on the WTA website. “Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government. 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.”
In an interview with CNN on Thursday night, he took things a step further, threatening to boycott China if she doesn’t surface soon. “We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it,” Simon told CNN. “Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business. Women need to be respected and not censored.”
Simon is one of many voices in global tennis to raise the alarm about the missing player. Naomi Osaka, Novak Djokovic, and Serena Williams demanded that her disappearance be investigated. “I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai,” Williams tweeted Thursday. “I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.”
British tennis legend Andy Murray joined the fray Friday, tweeting a speech given by Czech player Barbora Krejcikova about the 1989 Velvet Revolution that liberated her country from communism. “Female tennis player Peng Shuai whereabouts currently unknown after making Sexual abuse allegations against Chinese government official,” he tweeted. “This speech gives us a reminder and some hope that things can change in the future.”
Peng’s allegations in a social media post that was deleted some 30 minutes after she wrote it have shaken the world of international tennis, but there is little sign of the controversy in China, where even searching for her name on state-controlled internet now comes up blank. Thursday, the spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry even suggested he had never heard of Peng. “This is not a foreign affairs matter,” Zhao Lijian told reporters Thursday. “And I am not aware of the relevant situation you mentioned.”
The International Olympic Committee, undoubtedly wary of stirring up trouble before the Beijing Winter Games in February, has also remained shockingly silent. The committee first expressed relief when the largely discounted email to Simon was made public, and is now refusing to comment at all. “Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature,” the IOC tweeted Thursday. “This explains why the IOC will not comment any further at this stage.”
But a screenshot of her post—which predicted her own demise—is still circulating. “I know that for someone of your eminence, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid,” she wrote in the original post. “But even if it’s just me, like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you.”