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Peng Shuai: WTA 'willing' to pull tournaments from China over player's sexual assault allegation

Peng Shuai, 35, has not been seen or heard from publicly since claiming on social media that China's former vice premier had sexually assaulted her; Chinese state media released a letter attributed to Peng, but doubts have been raised over its legitimacy

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Andrew Castle says the whereabouts of Peng Shuai should be at the top of every sporting agenda

An outcry over the whereabouts of Chinese player Peng Shuai escalated on Friday as the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) said it was prepared to pull its tournaments out of China if they were not satisfied with the response to her sexual assault allegation.

Former doubles world No 1 Peng has not been seen or heard from publicly since she said on Chinese social media in early November that former vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, coerced her into sex and they later had an on-off consensual relationship.

Neither Zhang nor the Chinese government have commented on her allegation. Peng's social media post was quickly deleted and the topic has been blocked from discussion on China's heavily censored internet.

Concern among the global tennis community and beyond has grown over Peng's safety and whereabouts since her allegation, with the WTA calling for an investigation and the world's top players, including Andy Murray, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, tweeting #WhereIsPengShuai.

WTA chief executive Steve Simon told various US media outlets the tour would consider pulling tournaments worth tens of millions of dollars out of China.

"We're definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it," he told CNN in an interview.

"Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business. Women need to be respected and not censored."

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Two-time Wimbledon champion Murray tweeted that Shuai's "whereabouts (are) currently unknown after making sexual abuse allegations against (a) Chinese government official".

Murray also linked to a video of Czech player Barbora Krejcikova speaking about her country's liberation from communism during the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

Murray said of the footage: "This speech gives us a reminder and some hope that things can change in the future. #WhereIsPengShuai."

LTA offers its assistance

The Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) said it had contacted the WTA and offered to help in establishing the "safety and wellbeing" of Shuai.

An LTA statement said: "This is a very concerning situation, and we have written to the WTA offering our assistance in their efforts to establish the safety and wellbeing of Peng Shuai.

"We are also keen to support any further measures that the tours can introduce to improve the safety of all players.

"The immediate priority is to establish that Peng Shuai is safe and well and, furthermore, that she is able to speak freely and not subject to any form of censorship."

No comment from IOC

The issue has emerged as China prepares to host the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February amid calls from global rights groups and others for a boycott over its human rights record.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it would not comment on the matter.

"Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature," an IOC spokesperson said. "This explains why the IOC will not comment any further at this stage."

U.S. Representative Jim Banks of Indiana said he has written to US President Joe Biden about Peng's disappearance, urging him to raise her case with China and to warn Beijing it could have a negative impact on the Winter Olympics.

On Wednesday, WTA's Simon cast doubt on an email, which was also released by a Chinese state media outlet on Twitter, purporting to be from Peng and denying the allegations of sexual assault.

"I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her," he said.

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Steve Simon, chairman and chief executive of the WTA, says they are 'fully expecting' China to help prove Peng Shuai is safe after an email allegedly from Ms Peng denied she was missing

By Friday, the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai had racked up over 32m mentions on Facebook's Instagram, which is also blocked in China, as well as Twitter, according to hashtag analysis website BrandMentions.

In contrast, the topic remains heavily censored in China's tightly controlled cyberspace. As of Friday, searches for the WTA's official account on Weibo yielded no results although its account remained available. Peng's name on Weibo also continues to yield no search results.

Still, a handful of Chinese users took to the official Weibo accounts of players Williams and Novak Djokovic, who has also expressed shock at the situation, to thank them for releasing statements. "Thank you for speaking out!" said one.

Chinese government unaware

Peng claims that former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli coerced her into having sex
Image: Peng claimed that former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli coerced her into having sex

On Friday, China's Foreign Ministry stuck to its line the government was not aware of the controversy surrounding Shuai.

Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters the matter was not a diplomatic question and he was not aware of the situation.

The ministry has consistently rejected any knowledge of the issue since Peng made her accusation more than two weeks ago.

The 35-year-old former top-ranked player in women's doubles won titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014, she has also participated in three Olympic Games.

White House concern

The White House said it is concerned about reports Peng went missing and joined calls for Beijing to provide proof of the player's whereabouts.

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