China pleads ignorance amid calls to investigate tennis star Peng Shuai's whereabouts after sexual assault claim

·4-min read

A day after calls to investigate her claims of sexual assault amid concern about her safety, a Chinese government spokesperson pleaded ignorance about the status of tennis star Peng Shuai.

"I have not heard of the issue you raised," foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters on Monday at a news conference, per AFP. He added: "This is is not a diplomatic question" and made no further comment on the subject.

WTA leads calls to investigate Peng's allegation

The Women's Tennis Association called for an investigation on Sunday following an allegation by Peng that a retired government official sexually assaulted her. That call has since been echoed by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and tennis stars including Chris Evert, Billie Jean King and Novak Djokovic.

Peng initially made her accusation on Chinese social media outlet Weibo on Nov. 2. Reuters reported on Sunday that she hasn't been seen in public since the claim, prompting concerns in the tennis community about her safety.

BEIJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 28: Peng Shuai of China in action against Daria Kasatkina of Russia during women's singles first round match 2019 China Open - Day 1 on September 28, 2019 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images)
Peng Shuai hasn't been seen in public since making a sexual assault allegation on Nov. 2. (Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images)

Peng accused a Chinese govt. official of sexually assaulting her

Per a Washington Post translation, Peng, 35, wrote on Weibo that retired vice premier Zhang Gaoli pressured her into having sex after he and his wife invited her to their home for a meal in 2018. Zhang is either 74 or 75 years old, based on his government profile. She eventually agreed to an ongoing affair that Zhang insisted on keeping secret, according Peng's post.

“That afternoon I didn’t agree at first and kept crying,” she wrote. “ ... I know I can’t say it all clearly, and that there’s no use in saying it. But I still want to say it.”

Zhang was a member of China's Politburo Standing Committee, the nation's top government decision-making body. Peng wrote that she didn't have evidence to prove her allegation. The statement was deleted shortly after it was published but has been preserved via screenshots.

Per the Post, Peng's allegation marked a breakthrough moment in a #MeToo movement that's been stifled in China amid censorship and government crackdowns against women's rights activists. Traces of her accusation against a government official have been scrubbed from Chinese internet outlets controlled by the government.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - APRIL,13:  (RUSSIA OUT) Chinese Vice Primier Zhang Gaoli attends a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Novo-Ogaryovo State Residence on April, 13, 2017 outside Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
Former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli stands accused of sexual assault. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Tennis world responds

On Sunday, Evert joined the calls asking about Peng's safety and whereabouts.

King tweeted the statement from WTA chairman chairman Steve Simon while calling for an investigation.

Djokovic described the situation as "shocking."

“I did hear about it a week ago and, honestly, it’s shocking," Djokovic said on Sunday, per the Telegraph. “More so that it’s someone that I’ve seen on the tour in previous years quite a few times.”

Djokovic made his comments after the ATP released a statement supporting the WTA's.

“There is nothing more important to us than the safety of our tennis community," the statement reads. “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 against Peng Shuai.”

Safety concerns were raised after Peng's Nov. 2 statement

The calls in recent days echo concerns about Peng's safety from U.S.-based Chinese feminist activist Lu Pin that she initially expressed to the Post on Nov. 3.

“We are all very nervous about what will happen to her,” Lu told the Post. “At the same time, we feel this is something very important that has happened.”

Peng rose to the world's No. 1 doubles ranking in 2014 after securing championships at Wimbledon and the French Open. The China Tennis Association didn't respond to a Reuters request for statement on Sunday. Monday's response from Zhao was the first time the Chinese government has addressed the subject. Zhang has not addressed Peng's allegation in public.

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