WTA chief doubles down on China threat after videos shared of missing Peng Shuai

Concerns mount over Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai

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WTA CEO and Chairman Steve Simon has issued a new statement over the disappearence of former doubles world No 1 Peng Shuai. His new comments come off the back of new videos released by Chinese state media, that appear to show Peng Shuai enjoying dinner at a restaurant, which state media claims was filmed on Saturday (November 20). The WTA boss has threatened to remove all tournaments from the country if there is no verification that Peng is free, and if they fail to fairly investigate her sexual assault allegations against Zhang Gaoli, the former vice premier.

Peng Shuai has been unaccounted for since accusing China’s former vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault in a Weibo post on November 2, in which she also detailed a consensual on-off affair dating back to 2011, with the now-retired politician who served on China’s top ruling council, the Politburo Standing Committee, between 2012 and 2017

The post was removed within half an hour, while Zhang has not responded to the claims, though a spokesperson for Beijing’s foreign ministry denied all knowledge of the allegations when asked about the subject, saying: “I have not heard of it and it is not a diplomatic question.”

Concerns for the two-time doubles Grand Slam champion’s whereabouts have been growing in recent days, with tennis players, the WTA, and even the United Nations and White House speaking on the matter, calling for verification of Peng’s safety and whereabouts, as well as an investigation into her allegations.

China’s state-affiliated media have shared several social media posts to account for the 35-year-old, including a statement allegedly written by Peng claiming the allegations were fake and saying she was safe and resting at home, and photos she allegedly sent to a friend via WeChat on Friday (November 19), showing her smiling alongside a grey cat and some soft toys.

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On Saturday (November 20), state media then released videos showing the Chinese tennis star out for dinner at a restaurant with her coach and friends, claiming the footage was filmed on Saturday.

Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of Global Times – the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party – posted the videos to his Twitter account, saying: “I acquired two video clips, which show Peng Shuai was having dinner with her coach and friends in a restaurant. The video content clearly shows they are shot on Saturday Beijing time.”

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As Peng’s coach appears to go through her off-season training plan with her, he is heard saying in Chinese: “Tomorrow is November 20th,” as one of the tennis player’s friends corrects him: “No, tomorrow is the 21st.”

The second video shows a door in the restaurant with part of the date written on it, though the BBC’s China media analyst Kerry Allen pointed out that the day of the month was blurred, with only November visible, saying: “For non-Chinese speakers – on the door are the words 11月 日. That means the 11th month, and then there should be a number before the day to indicate the date. If it was today’s date you’d see 11月20日. Yet there’s no day – it appears to have been blurred over.”

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The WTA CEO and Chairman has now responded to the videos, saying it was “positive” to see the former world No 14 in singles, though doubted whether Peng was completely free to make her own decisions and actions.

“I am glad to see the videos released by China state-run media that appear to show Peng Shuai at a restaurant in Beijing,” Steve Simon said on Saturday, shortly after the videos were released.

“While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference. This video alone is insufficient.

“As I have stated from the beginning, I remain concerned about Peng Shuai’s health and safety and that the allegation of sexual assault is being censored and swept under the rug.”

Simon has continued to threaten to pull all WTA Tour events out of China if his two demands are not met – for independent and verifiable proof that Peng is safe and free, and for her allegations to be investigated fully and fairly.

Ending his statement by doubling down on the threat, he added: “I have been clear about what needs to happen and our relationship with China is at a crossroads.”

The WTA CEO’s latest statement echoes a letter he sent to the Chinese Ambassador to the United States on Friday (November 19).

In it, he requests assistance for the matter to be “successfully resolved”, detailing his two requests in full.

“First, there needs to be independent and verifiable confirmation that Peng Shuai is safe. So that her fellow players and fans everywhere can know she is safe, I request she be allowed to leave the country or speak live via teleconference with me with no one else present, unless it is with Peng’s permission,” he wrote.

“Second, the accusation of sexual assault is serious. As the leader of a women’s tennis organization, I think it is vital to see that this allegation is investigated fairly, fully, transparently and without censorship. Anything less would be a setback for the rights of women, not to mention the cause of justice.”

Simon also threatened to remove WTA tournaments, including the prestigious year-end finals in Shenzhen, in the letter, adding: “If our two requests are not honored, we will have no choice but to seriously consider whether we can play in China again. If Peng Shuai is not safe, free to move about, or to speak freely, we have grave concerns that none of our players will be safe in China. And if Peng Shuai’s accusation is not properly investigated, it would cause deep concern throughout the WTA. Simply put, the WTA is at a crossroads in China.”

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