Naomi Osaka has joined a growing number of tennis players and officials asking for answers about Peng Shuai, the Chinese athlete who hasn’t been seen publicly since she made sexual assault allegations against a former top official in the Chinese Communist Party.
Earlier this month, Peng, 35, published a long social media post in which she accused Zhang Gaoli, an ex-vice premier in his 70s, of sexually assaulting her during an otherwise consensual on-off relationship while he was in office.
On Tuesday, Osaka, the Japanese former world No.1, posted a message under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai, which has been widely circulated on social media.
“Censorship is never OK at any cost. I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and OK,” Osaka wrote. “I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way.”
Men’s No. 1 Novak Djokovic said Monday the situation was “shocking” and that he couldn’t “imagine just how her family feels.”
Peng is one of China’s biggest tennis stars of recent years. She is a former doubles world No. 1 who won doubles grand slams at Wimbledon and the French Open in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
Her allegations against Zhang, who was once one of China’s most powerful officials under President Xi Jinping, are the most high profile in the country’s own #MeToo movement.
Peng’s message on the Chinese social media platform Weibo on Nov. 2 was quickly deleted, and any online debate was quashed by government censors who blocked a list of related search terms.
Chinese officials did not respond to a request for comment earlier this month when Peng’s statement was posted, and NBC News reached out to its Foreign Ministry again Wednesday without reply. Zhang, who retired in 2018 and is no longer in the public eye, could not be reached for a response.
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“We have been deeply concerned by the uncertainty surrounding the immediate safety and whereabouts” of Peng, Andrea Gaudenzi, chairman of the ATP Tour, which runs the men’s game said in a statement Monday. He called for “full, fair and transparent investigation” into her allegations.
The Women’s Tennis Association says it has received confirmation from “several sources,” including the Chinese Tennis Association, that Peng is “safe and not under any physical threat,” its chief executive, Steve Simon, told the New York Times on Sunday.
Simon said he believes Peng is in Beijing but he can’t confirm that because neither he nor any other official or player that he is aware of has been able to contact her directly.
Tennis is one of many sports grappling with how to balance China’s vast commercial opportunities with concerns about Beijing’s widely criticized record on human rights and censorship. Simon told the Times the WTA would consider boycotting China unless he saw “appropriate results” in this case.
Czech-American tennis legend Martina Navratilova said in a tweet that this was “a very strong stance by WTA — and the correct stance!”
“Let’s not remain silent,” wrote French player Alizé Cornet, using the #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag. American player Jamie Hampton retweeted Osaka’s statement, adding, “Thank you for stepping up to the plate, having a spine, and using your platform to draw attention to real issues.”
In her post earlier this month, Peng did not say exactly when the alleged assault took place, and said that she was unable to provide evidence of her allegations.
“That afternoon, I was very afraid. I didn’t expect it to be like this,” she wrote on Weibo, a Chinese platform similar to Twitter. “I didn’t agree to have sex with you and kept crying that afternoon.”
She is not the first Chinese celebrity to vanish suddenly from the public eye.
Movie megastar Fan Bingbing disappeared for almost a year between 2018 and 2019 after being ordered by authorities to pay $129 million in unpaid taxes and fines. She emerged after issuing an apology, saying she was “ashamed,” and crediting the “great policies” of the Communist Party, without which “there would be no Fan Bingbing.”
Last year, Chinese tech billionaire Jack Ma disappeared for three months following comments that some interpreted as critical of China’s financial regulators.