Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai went missing for 18 days after accusing former Chinese Communist party leader Zhang Gaoili of sexual assault back on Nov. 2. The allegations and her subsequent disappearance caused the tennis community, White House and multiple other prominent international organizations to jump to her defense.
The former French Open and Wimbledon doubles champion claimed retired Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli forced her into sex three years ago in a since-deleted online post to the Chinese social-media site Weibo. Peng has not been seen in public since, aside from a heavily-scrutinized video Chinese state media released of her at a Beijing restaurant on Saturday and an alleged video call with the president of the International Olympic Committee on Sunday.
The WTA has actively pressured China into confirming Peng's safety and investigating her allegations, and on Dec. 1 took its strongest step yet by suspending all tournaments in the country. The White House, United Nations and European Union also came to Peng's defense, calling for investigations into her allegations and disappearance.
Peng's tennis peers have been equally supportive, with Novak Djokovic calling her disappearance "shocking" and Chris Evert describing the entire situation as "disturbing." Billie Jean King wrote that she hopes Peng, a former world No. 1, is found safe while Alize Cornet added "Let's not remain silent" with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
The most prominent women's tennis player on the planet, Naomi Osaka, tweeted that she is "in shock of the current situation" and is "sending love and light her way."
Serena Williams, the sport's preeminent force long before Osaka, shared the same picture of Peng with an equally concerned sentiment.
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 pic.twitter.com/GZG3zLTSC6— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) November 18, 2021
Here's a chronological look at how the entire situation with Peng has unfolded, starting with the latest updates:
Dec. 1: WTA suspends all tournaments in China
WTA CEO Steve Simon suspended all tournaments in China over the country's censorship of Peng and failure to fully investigate her sexual assault allegations. The move comes after the WTA and China built an extensive working relationship, as the country currently hosts 11 WTA Tournaments and the tour finals in Shenzhen.
Despite the ties between the WTA and China, Simon justified his decision by saying he can't "in good conscience" send more WTA players to a country capable of the censorship it's applying to Peng.
"While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation," Simon wrote in a statement. "The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation – without censorship – into Peng Shuai's sexual assault accusation.
"None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players."
Simon added the WTA "will do everything possible to protect its players" and called for others to speak out about sexual assault.
Nov. 30: EU requests 'verifiable proof' of Peng's safety
The EU followed the White House and UN in calling for an investigation into Peng's allegations and disappearance. In a statement, the EU requested a "full, fair and transparent investigation" into the situation and added it "strongly opposes" enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention.
"The EU joins growing international demands, including by sport professionals, for assurances that she is free and not under threat," the EU's statement read, according to the Associated Press. "In this spirit, the EU requests the Chinese government to provide verifiable proof of Peng Shuai's safety, well-being and whereabouts. The EU urges the Chinese authorities to conduct a full, fair and transparent investigation into her allegations of sexual assault."
While 11 days after the White House and UN's public comments, the EU's statement is the most significant by an international organization since Peng's recent public resurfacing. Peng appeared in a video released by Chinese state media on Nov. 20 and joined an IOC-hosted video conference a day later.
"Her recent public reappearance does not ease concerns about her safety and freedom," an EU spokesperson told the AP.
Nov. 21: IOC holds video call with Peng
The International Olympic Committee announced Sunday that IOC president Thomas Bach held a video call with Peng in which she claimed to be safe. According to the IOC's statement, the two were accompanied on the call by Chinese sports official Li Lingwei as well as Chair of the Athletes' Commission Emma Terho.
According to that statement, Peng thanked the committee for its concern about her well-being and insisted that she was safe and well at her home in Beijing, but that she "like to have her privacy respected at this time. That is why she prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now."
"I was relieved to see that Peng Shuai was doing fine, which was our main concern," read a statement by Terho. "She appeared to be relaxed. I offered her our support and to stay in touch at any time of her convenience, which she obviously appreciated."
The IOC also claimed that Peng accepted an invitation to dinner with Bach, Terho, and Li in January. The 2022 Winter Olympics are to be held in Beijing.
Nov. 20: Chinese state media releases first footage of Peng since disappearance
Chinese state media shared a video of Peng dining in Beijing, a day after it claimed the tennis star shared three photos on the Chinese social-media platform WeChat. Global Times editor Hu Xijin, who posted the video on Twitter, said the dinner took place Saturday and included Peng's friends and coach.
The video comes after Xijin tweeted Peng was "freely" staying at home and would "participate in some activities soon" on Friday.
Latest instalment in the Peng Shuai saga is 2 creepy videos being heavily publicised by Chinese state media, incl. Global Times editor Hu Xijin. Peng can’t be heard talking, & they’ve clearly been made in response to the viral #WhereIsPengShuai campaign. pic.twitter.com/sV8EQxt7nD https://t.co/cwq3z4YpEz— Jack Hazlewood (@JackHHazlewood) November 20, 2021
While WTA CEO Steve Simon said seeing Peng in the video was a "positive" development, he described the evidence as "insufficient" and remains "concerned about Peng Shuai's health and safety, and that the allegation of sexual assault is being censored and swept under the rug."
"It remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference," Simon said.
Per a Sky News translation, the people dining with Peng made multiple references to the date and her recent performances. Peng did not speak in the video herself.
Nov. 19: White House, UN call for investigation into Peng Shuai situation
The White House broke its silence on Peng's situation by demanding proof of her safety and condemning China's censorship. Press secretary Jen Psaki said the White House is "deeply concerned" over the tennis star's disappearance and seeks "independent and verifiable proof" of her location and condition.
A day prior, U.S. President Joe Biden said he was "considering" a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing because of the country's handling of human rights issues.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki says the Biden administration is 'deeply concerned' about reports that Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has gone missing.— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) November 19, 2021
"First, any report of sexual assault should be investigated, and we support a women's ability to speak out and seek accountability whether here or around the world. Second, we will continue to stand up for the freedom of speech, and we know that the PRC has zero tolerance for criticism and a record of silencing those that speak out, and we continue to condemn those practices."
The United Nations joined the White House's defense of Peng, with UN Human Rights Office spokesperson Liz Throssell calling for an investigation with "full transparency."
"What we would say is that it would be important to have proof of her whereabouts and wellbeing, and we would urge that there be an investigation with full transparency into her allegations of sexual assault," Throssell said.
Nov. 19: China says it is 'not aware' of situation involving Shuai
China's Foreign Ministry revealed that they weren't "aware" of the situation surrounding Peng Shuai, according to the Associated Press. Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian informed the media that the matter was "not a diplomatic question" and added that he is "not aware of the situation."
Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the United Nations human rights office in Geneva, on the other hand, said that the situation called for "an investigation with full transparency into her allegation of sexual assault."
As of Friday, the International Olympic Committee declined to comment on the matter.
Nov. 18: Simon, WTA threatens to pull Chinese business
Simon doubled down on his threat to pull the WTA's business from China, a country his organization has expanded in over the past several years, if it wouldn't confirm Peng's safety and investigate her allegations.
"We're definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it," Simon told CNN. "Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business."
"Women need to be respected and not censored," he added.
China hosted 19 WTA tournaments in 2019 alone for a total of $30.4 million prize money. Shenzhen is slated to host the WTA Finals from 2022-2030 after doing so in 2019 for the first time. The 2019 Finals had a $14 million prize purse.
Nov. 17: WTA questions legitimacy of Peng Shuai statement
An email allegedly sent from Peng on Wednesday claimed the WTA did not get her consent or verification before releasing its statement. It was Peng's first public comments since her allegations, but some, including the WTA, had questions regarding the legitimacy of the statement.
"The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true," the email, which was tweeted out by China state-affiliated media China Global Television Network, read. "I'm not missing, nor am I unsafe. I've just been resting at home and everything is fine."
Simon then openly questioned whether Peng was coerced into writing it.
"The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts," Simon wrote. "Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source."
Peng has still yet to be seen since her social media post on Nov. 2.
Nov. 15: China stays silent on Peng Shuai's allegations, disappearance
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijan said "this is not a diplomatic question" when asked about Peng's allegations, adding he had "not heard of the issue." The country, 13 days after Peng's post, still has yet to acknowledge it.
Nov. 14: WTA chief executive calls for investigation into situation
Steve Simon, WTA's chief executive, requested a "full, fair and transparent" investigation into Peng's allegations in a statement. At that point, no one had seen or heard from Peng for 12 days, prompting the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai to spread across social media.
"Obviously she displayed tremendous courage going public," Simon told the New York Times. "Now we want to make sure we're moving forward to a place where a full and transparent investigation is conducted. Anything else, I think, is an affront to not only our players but to all women."
Simon threatened to pull the WTA's business from China if the country failed to properly investigate Peng's allegations. China currently hosts 11 WTA tournaments and the tour finals in Shenzhen.
While Simon couldn't directly confirm Peng's whereabouts or condition, he told the Times that several sources -- including the Chinese Tennis Association -- told him that she's "safe and not under any physical threat." Simon's "understanding" was that she was in Beijing.
Nov. 2: Peng Shuai makes sexual assault allegations against Zhang
In a 1,600-word post to Weibo, Peng accused the 75-year-old Zhang -- a former leader within China's Communist party -- of pressuring her into sex around three years ago. Peng, 35, claimed the assault occurred after Zhang invited her to play tennis with him and his wife at their house, but she admitted she had no evidence.
"I was so scared that afternoon," wrote Peng, who claimed a guard stood watch outside the door while the assault occurred. "I never gave consent, crying the entire time."
Peng said she and Zhang became acquainted with each other while the latter was serving as Tianjin's party boss from 2007-2012, and Zhang forced her into sex after leaving his post as China's vice premier in 2017.
"I know that for someone of your stature, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you have said that you are not afraid," Peng wrote. "But even if it is like throwing an egg against rock, or if I am like a moth drawn to the flame, inviting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you."
The post was deleted within 30 minutes, and Chinese censors blocked search terms such as Peng's name.