11/15/2021 – WTA calls for investigation of Chinese tennis player’s sexual assault allegations against senior official

Posted on Nov 15, 2021

source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/wta-peng-shuai-china-tennis/2021/11/15/1741b1f8-45c9-11ec-973c-be864f938c72_story.html

By Eva DouNovember 15, 2021 at 2:51 a.m. EST

The head of the Women’s Tennis Association has called for China to investigate Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai’s allegations against former vice premier Zhang Gaoli, taking a rare public stance against Beijing on a political controversy.

Peng’s statement earlier this month marked the first time a Chinese politician at such a senior level has been publicly accused of sexual assault. Her online post was quickly censored in China, and she has since remained silent, raising concerns about her whereabouts and safety.

Peng, 35, became the first Chinese tennis player to be ranked No. 1 in doubles in the Women’s Tennis Association in 2014. Zhang, who is four decades older than her, was China’s vice premier from 2013 until his retirement in 2018.

In a statement on Sunday, WTA Chairman Steve Simon said Peng showed “remarkable courage” in making her statement and called for a full investigation of the allegations without censorship.

“Her accusation about the conduct of a former Chinese leader involving a sexual assault must be treated with the utmost seriousness,” Simon said in the statement. “In all societies, the behavior she alleges that took place needs to be investigated, not condoned or ignored.”

Early this month, a screenshot of a post apparently from Peng’s verified Weibo microblog account circulated in China as censors scrambled to delete copies of it. The post alleged that Zhang had pressured Peng into having sex with him several years earlier in his home, before convincing her to engage in a long-term affair with him.

“That afternoon I didn’t agree at first and kept crying,” the post said.

The Washington Post has not been able to independently verify the allegations, and Peng’s post said she would not be able to provide evidence as Zhang sought to keep their meetings secret. Peng did not respond to requests for comment. China’s State Council Information Office did not respond to a request to make Zhang available for an interview.

Such an allegation against a top leader is virtually unprecedented in China, with senior officials maintaining intense secrecy over their personal lives. The Chinese Communist Party bans officials from having extramarital relationships, and at lower levels of government, it has been used as grounds for dismissal.

The WTA statement comes as international sports organizations are finding it increasingly difficult to tap into China’s massive consumer market without touching on politics. For years, the conventional wisdom was that businesses seeking to court Chinese consumers should steer clear of political issues and avoid any criticism of Beijing.

But as diplomatic tensions intensified between China and the West, sports leagues have found themselves caught between business backlash in China if they don’t toe Beijing’s political line, and consumer boycotts in the West if they don’t stand up to China on human rights issues.

Last month, China cut the Boston Celtics’ live broadcasts after center Enes Kanter posted a video voicing his support for Tibetan independence, which Beijing views as an illegal secessionist movement. The NBA also faced backlash in China two years ago after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey voiced support for Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters.

Peng’s silence has raised concerns in global tennis circles. On Sunday, 18-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert posted on Twitter, calling Peng’s allegations “very disturbing.”

“I’ve known Peng since she was 14; we should all be concerned; this is serious; where is she? Is she safe?” Evert posted.

British tennis player Liam Broady wrote on Twitter: “I can’t believe this is even happening in the 21st century.”

Chinese feminists have also been seeking to draw attention to the case by projecting “Where is Peng Shuai?” and other messages of support on the sides of buildings.

The WTA’s call for an investigation appeared to be censored in China on Monday, with hardly any mentions appearing on social media platforms within the country. The WTA’s Chinese-language Weibo account, which has 400,000 followers, did not carry Simon’s statement.