The Untold Truth Of Chinese Tennis Star Peng Shuai

Tennis player Peng Shuai has been one of China's most high-profile athletes on the international stage. According to WTA Tour, She's been consistently ranked among the Top 50 and Top 100 in the world over the course of her two-decade professional career, with a career-high of No. 14 in the WTA rankings which she reached in 2011. She has competed at every Grand Slam championship with a semi-finals appearance at the 2014 U.S. Open marking her deepest run into the tournament, and at one point was a top-ranked doubles player.

However, Peng has garnered international attention away from the court. After accusing a high-ranking official in China's Communist Party official of sexual assault in 2021, she virtually disappeared from the public eye, according to CBS Sports. Peng's withdrawal from the public caused great concern around the world from organizations and governments around the world demanding answers from the Chinese government and proof of her well-being.

Peng Shuai embarks on a successful tennis career

According to The U.S. Sun, Peng Shuai was born on January 8, 1986 born in Hunan, China. Her bio on WTA Tour mentions that she was introduced to the sport of tennis by her uncle when she was only 8 years old.

Peng played the first event of her professional career in 2000, even managing to reach the semi-finals. 2004 would see the first season of her career in which she ranked in the top 100 players. That same year she qualified for her first Grand Slam, making an appearance at Wimbledon, but was eliminated in the first round. She would find herself among the world's top 50 players in 2005, after managing to qualify for the Australian Open, French Open, and U.S. Open.

Peng would make it into the world's top 20 in 2011 in what was her career-best season. She found continued success until she ran into injuries in 2015 but would bounce back in 2017 with a strong season and her most wins since 2011. In 2019, Peng won a pair of WTA doubles titles. Peng last made an appearance on the woman's tour in 2020, and the Associated Press reported in 2022 that after several knee surgeries she sees the possibility of a return to competition as unlikely.

Peng levies allegation against a government official

According to the Associated Press, In November 2021, Peng Shuai made a post to the Chinese social media platform Weibo in which she accused a high-ranking official in the Chinese government of sexual assault. The official in question was Zhang Gaoli, the nation's former vice-premier who, per CNN, was a major player in the organization of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Zhang is known as a member of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee — a powerful arm of the Chinese government. In the post, Peng accused Zhang of assaulting her at his home following a game of tennis that she played with him and his wife.

While social media is available in China, the Chinese Communist Party maintains a stranglehold over much of the content in an effort to control information and public discourse. This is believed to be why the post was removed from Weibo, however, screenshots of the post were taken and made the rounds on Twitter, which is not available in China, per the Associated Press. 

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Peng vanishes from the public eye

Given her status as one of her country's most high-profile international athletes, it was highly unusual that in the wake of her accusations against Zhang, Peng seemingly vanished, both from the public and from social media. Her sudden elusiveness caused concern around the world, even drawing the attention of the United Nations. According to CNN, the spokesperson of the UN Human Rights office, Liz Throssell, addressed the situation in November 2021.

"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," she said. "According to available information, the former world doubles No. 1 hasn't been heard from publicly since she alleged on social media that she was sexually assaulted. We would stress that it is important to know where she is and know her state, know about her wellbeing."

In response to the lack of information concerning Peng's whereabouts, Steve Simon, the head of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) said the organization was willing to suspend women's tour events in China. "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."

Peng's accusations cast a shadow over the Olympics

Peng's accusations came just months before China was to open the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. With the mystery surrounding Peng's well-being, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach announced his intentions to personally meet the tennis star. Before their meeting, Peng recanted her accusations in December 2021 to The Lianhe Zaobao, a newspaper. Her statements were translated by ESPN.

"First of all, I want to emphasize something that is very important. I have never said that I wrote that anyone sexually assaulted me. I need to emphasize this point very clearly," Peng said.

Unsurprisingly, this walking-back of her initial statements did not put any concerns to rest. The World Tennis Association released a statement in response saying: "As we have consistently stated, these appearances do not alleviate or address the WTA's significant concerns about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion. We remain steadfast in our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern."

Peng insists her social media allegations were a "misunderstanding"

Peng met with Bach and IOC member Kirsty Coventry, who is the former Chair of the Athletes' Commission according to the International Olympic Committee. The IOC statement mentions that at a meeting held over dinner, Peng, Bach, and Coventry mostly discussed things related to their experiences at the Olympic Games, both past and present. Per the IOC's statement, "In this context, she also shared her intention to travel to Europe when the COVID-19 pandemic is over, and the IOC President invited her to Lausanne to visit the IOC and The Olympic Museum, to continue the conversation on their Olympic experiences. Peng Shuai accepted this invitation." The IOC statement made no mention of whether the sexual assault accusation came up. 

Peng would then do an interview with French newspaper L'Equipe, in which according to the Associated Press, she once again recanted her statements about the alleged assault. Peng was quoted as saying, "Sexual assault? I never said that anyone made me submit to a sexual assault."

When pressed further about the initial social media post in which she made the accusations against Zhang she responded, "This post resulted in an enormous misunderstanding from the outside world. My wish is that the meaning of this post no longer be skewed." Adding that it disappeared after "she erased it" because she "wanted to."