Naomi Osaka speaks out on Peng Shuai’s disappearance, a situation that China is allegedly unaware of

Society & Culture

A Chinese tennis star made explosive #MeToo allegations against a former senior government official. Now she has disappeared and the global tennis community is talking about it, but the Chinese government is denying knowledge of the matter.

Zhang Gaoli, a former Vice Premier who has been accused of sexual misconduct by tennis star Peng Shuai. Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

Tennis champion Naomi Osaka has joined a growing number of athletes and organizations voicing concerns over the safety and whereabouts of Chinese tennis star Péng Shuài 彭帅, who has not been heard from for about two weeks since detailing sexual abuse allegations against a retired high-ranking official from the Chinese government.

On Tuesday, the Japanese superstar, who has won four Grand Slam singles titles, took to Twitter to raise awareness about the issue. “Not sure if you’ve been following the news, but I was recently informed of a fellow tennis player that has gone missing shortly after revealing that she has been sexually abused,” she wrote, using the hashtag #WhereisPengShuai, which has been widely circulated on social media in the past week.

Osaka, age 24, has been outspoken about using her platform to draw attention to social issues. She tweeted that she hoped Peng and her family are safe and sound. “Censorship is never ok at any cost,” she wrote. “I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way.”

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Earlier this month, Peng, one of China’s most recognizable tennis stars, accused Zhāng Gāolì 张高丽, who served as China’s vice premier from 2013 to 2018, in a lengthy Weibo post, of pressuring her into having sex 10 years ago, and then carrying on an intermittent, abusive affair with her that spanned almost a decade.

Although her allegations immediately sent China’s social media censors into overdrive, resulting in the quick removal of the original post and a blanket block of nearly 600 references related to the news — including at one point wǎngqiú 网球, the Chinese word for tennis — they still spread across the internet like wildfire, both at home and abroad.

Naomi Osaka tweets 

With Tuesday’s statement, Osaka has joined a swelling chorus of players from the tennis community expressing concern over the disappearance of Peng. In remarks to reporters during a post-match press conference on Monday, men’s world number one Novak Djokovic expressed alarm at what he described as a “terrible” situation,” saying that he couldn’t “imagine just how her family feels.” When asked about his opinion on the matter, French player Nicholas Mahut said on Monday that people should be “mobilized” and that the Olympic committee should “wake up” before the Beijing Winter Olympics, which is scheduled to take place in February next year.

Officials in the tennis world have weighed in, too. In a statement released on Sunday, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) said that it would look for a “full, fair, and transparent” investigation into the allegation while also demanding an end to the censorship of Peng’s allegations. 

“In all societies, the behavior she alleges that took place needs to be investigated, not condoned or ignored,” Steve Simon, WTA’s chairman and CEO, wrote. “We commend Peng Shuai for her remarkable courage and strength in coming forward. Women around the world are finding their voices so injustices can be corrected.”

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the governing body of men’s tennis, backed WTA’s call on Monday, saying that while it was “encouraged by the recent assurances received by WTA” that Peng is safe, it would “continue to monitor the situation closely.” Similarly, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) told Reuters that it commended Peng for speaking out and recognized her courage for doing so.

A hostage text from state TV?

In stark contrast to the solidarity displayed by the global sports community, Peng’s case remained a taboo subject on the Chinese internet, and no athletes in China have dared to show support for her. Meanwhile, Chinese officials are not answering questions about the case: When asked during a daily briefing on Monday about the status of Peng, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 pleaded ignorance, saying that he had no knowledge of Peng’s situation. “I have not heard of the matter, and it is not a diplomatic question,” Zhao told a reporter. “I suggest you ask the relevant authorities about the relevant question.”

Chinese state media, on the other hand, has started to speak up. CGTN, the international arm of state broadcaster CCTV, tweeted the following today, saying that it had “learned” that Peng has sent the following email to Steve Simon, the WTA chairman:

Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai. 

Regarding the recent news released on the official website of the WTA, the content has not been confirmed or verified by myself and it was released without my consent. 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. Thank you again for caring about me. 

If the WTA publishes any more news about me, please verify it with me, and release it with my consent. As a professional tennis player, I thank you all for your companionship and consideration. I hope to promote Chinese tennis with you all if I have the chance in the future. I hope Chinese tennis will become better and better. 

CGTN has a long history of producing and broadcasting forced confessions from political detainees, and Simon responded that “the statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.” He urged that “Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source.” 

Since the #MeToo movement took hold in China in 2018, a growing roster of prominent Chinese men in different walks of life have been outed or formally charged as sexual assault perpetrators. But Peng’s accusation is the first against a government official as senior as Zhang, calling into question the patriarchal culture of the Communist Party and drawing attention to perceived abuses by powerful political figures.

Perhaps due to the political sensitivities surrounding Peng’s claims, there’s virtually no room for people in China to advocate for her. Nonetheless, some Chinese feminists have found creative ways to speak out on the matter: Last week, a group of them organized a guerrilla projection protest in a Chinese city, where buildings and bridges at unidentified locations were lit up with messages such as “We support Peng Shuai” and “Chinese women said ‘Enough.’”