The WTA Tour on Sunday called on the Chinese government to investigate allegations of sexual assault made by Peng Shuai against a former Chinese vice premier, while also demanding an end to censorship of the former top-ranked doubles player.
Peng, one of China’s biggest sporting stars, alleged on her Weibo social media account on Nov. 2 that Zhang Gaoli, who became a member of the Politburo Standing Committee — China’s top decision-making body — coerced her into sex and they later had an on-off consensual relationship.
Peng said in the post, which was deleted around half an hour after it was published, that she could provide no evidence to back her allegations.
The China Tennis Association did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
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China’s internet is heavily censored and the private lives of top leaders are an especially sensitive subject. Zhang, now 75, was a vice premier between 2013 and 2018 and served on the Politburo Standing Committee between 2012 and 2017.
Concerns among the global tennis community have grown as Peng has not been seen since the post.
The WTA said in a statement that it will seek a “full, fair and transparent investigation into sexual assault allegations” against a former Chinese leader.
“The recent events in China concerning a WTA player, Peng Shuai, are of deep concern,” WTA Tour chairman and CEO Steve Simon said in the statement.
“Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored.
“Her accusation about the conduct of a former Chinese leader involving a sexual assault must be treated with the utmost seriousness.”
Peng was the world number one doubles player in 2014, the first Chinese player to achieve a top ranking, after winning the doubles titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.
China, the focus of the Tour’s most aggressive expansion over the last decade, hosted nine tournaments in the 2019 season, including the elite WTA Finals, with a total of $30.4 million in prize money on offer.
The season-ending WTA Finals, contested by the world’s top eight singles players and eight doubles teams, had a prize purse of $14 million in 2019 when it was played in Shenzhen for the first time.
The Finals was canceled last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic and moved this year to Guadalajara, Mexico.
The WTA said that the tournament will return to Shenzhen starting in 2022 and the Chinese city will host every edition until 2030.
“I think everybody fully understands what’s at stake here on many different fronts as we’re going through it,” Simon told the New York Times on Sunday. “I think we’re certainly, from players to board to council, fully united that the only acceptable approach is that of doing what is right.”
Simon told the Times no one at the WTA Tour has talked directly to Peng but that the organization had received assurances from the Chinese Tennis Association that she is safe.