Tennis stars Naomi Osaka, Novak Djokovic and others are voicing concern for Chinese player Peng Shuai, who claimed she was sexually abused by a former Chinese state leader before her post about it was taken down.
Osaka tweeted about Peng on Tuesday after learning that she had “gone missing,” with the hashtag, #WhereisPengShuai.
“Censorship is never ok at any cost, I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and ok,” Osaka wrote. “I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way.”
Peng, who was once ranked No. 1 doubles by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), accused former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her to have sex three years ago, despite repeated refusals. Peng, who had a previous consensual relationship with Zhang while he was in office, also accused his wife of guarding the door while she was being sexually assaulted. She made the claims on the Chinese social media platform Weibo earlier this month but the post was quickly deleted, raising fears over her safety.
On Wednesday, Chinese-state controlled media published an email it said was from Peng to WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon, saying she has’t been missing.
“The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault is not true,” the message read. “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.”
But Simon responded with a statement saying, “The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.”
He continued: “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her. 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.”
Before the purported statement, China’s state media had suppressed all reporting on the case. The accusations from Peng marked the first time the #MeToo movement has struck at the top echelons of the ruling Communist Party, the Associated Press reported.
Censorship of the incident has taken the tennis world by storm. Earlier this week, Djokovic, men’s tennis No.1-ranked player, said he was “shocked” and wished her safe return. The WTA, the lead organizing body of women’s professional tennis, demanded a transparent investigation into her sexual assault allegations.
“Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored,” WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon said in a statement on Sunday. “Her accusation about the conduct of a former Chinese leader involving a sexual assault must be treated with the utmost seriousness. … 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.”
A day later, Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) chairman Andrea Gaudenzi said he received assurances from the WTA that she “safe and accounted for” and will continue to monitor the situation.
“There is nothing more important to us than the safety of our tennis community. We have been deeply concerned by the uncertainty surrounding the immediate safety and whereabouts of WTA player Peng Shuai,” he said.
Peng won 23 tour-level doubles titles, including Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014. She was a semifinalist at the U.S. Open in 2014.