Following reports in the media on China’s Peng Shuai’s post on the social media platform, Weibo, earlier this month alleging that a senior Chinese vice-premier and high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her, the WTA has called for a full investigation into the matter.
"We expect this issue to be handled properly, meaning the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship... We've received confirmation from several sources, including the Chinese Tennis Association, that she is safe and not under any physical threat. Steve Simon, WTA Chairman and CEO
Peng, 35, won the Wimbledon doubles title in 2013 alongside Taiwanese partner Hsieh Su-wei, and the pair picked up a second Grand Slam title at the French Open a year later.
She reached a career-high of 14 in the WTA singles rankings in 2011, and is also a former World No 1 doubles.
Her post was taken down within 20 minutes and media reports say all traces of it have been removed from the Chinese internet, while Peng had not been seen or heard from since the post was made, giving rise to concerns over her welfare.
Peng said in the post that she could provide no evidence to back her allegations but that she had an on-off extramarital affair with Zhang a decade ago.
She wrote that Zhang, now 75, and his wife arranged to play tennis in Beijing about 3 years ago and that he later brought her into a room at his home where the assault had occurred.
“I was so frightened that afternoon, never thinking that this thing could happen,” the post read in Chinese.
Zhang retired in 2018 and largely disappeared from public life, as is usual with former Chinese officials.
It is the first time that such charges have been made against a senior politician in China, and Zhang, a vice premier between 2013 and 2018 who also served on the Politburo Standing Committee between 2012 and 2017, has yet to respond.
The Communist Party has increasingly cracked down on civil society, including the #MeToo movement that has struggled to gain traction in the country.
The China Tennis Association did not comment on the allegations or her whereabouts, prompting the WTA to insist on an investigation, but it has since been reported that Peng is ‘safe and not under any physical threat’.
China’s internet is heavily censored, and the private lives of top leaders are an especially sensitive subject.
Screenshots of the post, however, have circulated on Twitter, which is blocked in China, reinvigorating discussion on that platform about gender relations in China, where men dominate the top levels in politics and business.
Steve Simon, the WTA’s Chairman and Chief Executive, said: “The recent events in China concerning a WTA player, Peng Shuai, are of deep concern.
“As an organisation dedicated to women, we remain committed to the principles we were founded on – equality, opportunity and respect.
“Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored.
“Her accusation about the conduct of a former Chinese leader involving a sexual assault must be treated with the utmost seriousness.
“In all societies, the behaviour she alleges that took place needs to be investigated, not condoned or ignored.
“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 New York Times reported that Simon also said: “If, at the end of the day, we don’t see the appropriate results from this, we would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China, if that’s what it came to.”
The WTA has around 11 annual tournaments in China, including its season-sending finals in Shenzhen, the latter in a deal running from 2019-2028, but none have been played in the country since the pandemic began.
The events in China offered a total $30.4 million prize money, including a prize money purse of $14 million in 2019 when the WTA Finals was played in Shenzhen for the first time, involving the world’s elite 8 singles players and 8 doubles teams.
In recent years the WTA tour has become increasingly reliant on the Chinese market to host events, having become the sport’s biggest growth area following the success of former US and French Open champion Li Na.
The NYT reported that Simon said: “I think everybody fully understands what’s at stake here on many different fronts as we’re going through it…I think we’re certainly, from players to board to council, fully united that the only acceptable approach is that of doing what is right.”
The ATP has given its support of the WTA’s stance.
“There is nothing more important to us than the safety of our tennis community,” said ATP Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi. “We have been deeply concerned by the uncertainty surrounding the immediate safety and whereabouts of WTA player Peng Shuai.
“We are encouraged by the recent assurances received by WTA that she is safe and accounted for and will continue to monitor the situation closely.
“Separately, we stand in full support of WTA’s call for a full, fair and transparent investigation into allegations of sexual assault carried out against Peng Shuai.”
Since her accusation on 1 November, Peng has not posted on social media.
“We expect this issue to be handled properly, meaning the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship,” added Simon.
“Our absolute and unwavering priority is the health and safety of our players.
“We are speaking out so justice can be done.”
Simon added that no one at the WTA Tour had talked directly to Peng but they have now received assurances from the Chinese Tennis Association that she is safe.
“We’ve received confirmation from several sources, including the Chinese Tennis Association, that she is safe and not under any physical threat,” Simon said.
Non-governmental organisation Reporters Without Borders ranks China’s freedom of press situation as ‘very serious’, making it among the lowest-ranked in the world and only above Turkmenistan and North Korea.