Andy Murray and Serena Williams have become the latest high-profile names to join the campaign to find missing tennis star Peng Shuai in the wake of her sexual assault allegations.
The former doubles world No 1 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 three years ago, and that they had had an on-off relationship.
Neither Zhang or 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.
Taking to social media, Williams said: ‘I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible.
‘This must be investigated and we must not stay silent. Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time. #whereispengshuai’
Peng Shuai has been missing since posting that former Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli co-erced her into sex three eyars ago, and that they had had an on-off relationship
Andy Murray has now joined the search for the former world No 1 doubles player Peng
Serena Williams also took to her own social media and received well over 24,000 retweets
Steve Simon, the WTA chairman and CEO, said he will consider pulling tournaments out of China if the matter is not resolved soon
Murray then weighed in on the uncomfortable situation himself, noting: ‘Female tennis player Peng Shuai whereabouts currently unknown after making Sexual abuse allegations against Chinese government official.
‘This speech gives us a reminder and some hope that things can change in the future #WhereIsPengShuai’
Meanwhile, 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.
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.
WTA chief executive Steve Simon told various US media outlets on Thursday 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.’
Chinese state-affiliated media revealed an email which was reported to be from Peng in which she denied the allegations of sexual assault she made last week on social media
Peng made the allegations in a lengthy social media post on Weibo which was quickly deleted before her account was heavily censored
Peng alleged that senior politician Zhang Gaoli, 40 years her senior, sexually assaulted her in a bedroom at his house, while his wife was present
Incredibly, China’s Foreign Ministry has said it was not aware of the controversy surrounding Shuai.
Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters that the matter was ‘not a diplomatic question and I’m not aware of the situation’.
The ministry has consistently disavowed knowledge of the issue since it broke as a major global story earlier this week.
Hu Xijin, a well-connected Chinese state media editor weighed in on the scandal on Twitter early on Friday, saying he did not believe she had been the target of retribution.
‘As a person who is familiar with Chinese system, I don’t believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for the thing people talked about,’ said Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, on Twitter.
The Global Times is published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, and Hu has an active presence on Twitter, which is blocked in China. He did not make any similar comment on his official account on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.
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.
Naomi Osaka used the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai as she expressed her ‘shock’ on Twitter
The men’s world No 1 Novak Djokovic also expressed his concern over her disappearance
‘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.’
US 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.
By Friday, the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai had racked up over 32 million 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 tennis stars 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.