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Why China Is Downplaying Apparent Disappearance Of Tennis Star Who Alleged Sexual Assault

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By Ralph Jennings

The disappearance of a Chinese Olympic tennis star who alleged sexual assault by a former high-ranking politburo official seems to indicate that the Chinese government wants to repel any threat to its rule, observers said Thursday.

Peng Shuai, 35, formerly the world’s top-ranked women’s doubles player, said via the Chinese social media service Weibo November 2 that former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli had committed the assault, VOA’s Mandarin Service reported.

Chinese authorities had the post quickly deleted. This week, though, rights groups began asking where Peng could be found and the U.S.-based Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) demanded that her claim “be handled properly, meaning the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship.” It threatened to withdraw all tournaments from China, which could cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars in lost business revenue.

Liz Throssell, spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office, on Friday said it was important to have proof of her whereabouts and well-being and to have a full and transparent investigation into her allegations of sexual assault against Zhang.

Throssell said it was a challenging issue, given that it is difficult for victims of sexual assault to come forward. She also said it was important to ensure justice and accountability for victims.

Earlier Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “We are deeply concerned by reports that Peng Shuai appears to be missing after accusing a former PRC senior official of sexual assault. We join in the calls for PRC authorities to provide independent and verifiable proof of her whereabouts and that she is safe.”

Shielded from criticism

China’s communist government seldom tolerates negative comments about officials. Other challengers, such as authors, dissidents and publishers have reportedly gone missing after offending the leadership. Some turn up in the legal system.

“We can connect the dots and suspect that Beijing is behind all of this,” said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. “They’re in the custody of the party.”

Zhang, 75, had a decorated career as a Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee member and a Communist Party secretary in the port city of Tianjin. He had chaired government committees that oversaw the Three Gorges Dam megaproject and the Belt and Road Initiative for international infrastructure development.

“I think the thought behind this sort of matter is usually the group is bigger than the individual and stability is above all else, so, according to that thought, of course you can have ideas, but don’t impact overall stability … [including the] Communist Party control,” said Huang Kwei-bo, associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

Peng’s allegation implicates China’s power holders in the feminist #MeToo cause, said Lu Pin, founder of Feminist Voices, the country’s largest new media channel on women’s issues.

“Her experience has … urged people to reflect on the feminist movement, because the movement will inevitably touch and confront those in power,” Lu said. “I also see people are frightened by Peng’s disappearance. I guess it’s difficult to simply say that her courage has encouraged everyone. But in my opinion, Peng’s outspokenness is of great significance to China’s #MeToo movement.”

China in the crossfire

China’s official Global Television Network posted an English-language email Wednesday, purportedly written by Peng, saying she had never confirmed the association’s statement and that she was resting at home.

The International Olympic Committee said it was “encouraged by assurances that she is safe.” Peng played in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics.

However, rights groups and tennis observers suspect a cover-up. Media outlet Tennis.com’s Twitter feed leads with the line, “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received.”

The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai “is trending globally” and tennis champions Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic have raised concerns about the apparent disappearance, according to Human Rights Watch.

“The Chinese government, the IOC’s Winter Olympics partner, frequently forcibly disappears individuals whose views or conduct it sees as problematic or embarrassing,” Human Rights Watch said.

Beijing is set to host the 2022 Winter Games.

“To use a tennis metaphor, the ball is now in China’s court,” said Daryl Adiar, associate professor of sport management in the Business School of the University of Technology Sydney. “Peng Shuai seems likely to be seeking a hearing in a court of law, something about which complainants the world over ought to be entitled.”

Chinese officials have not commented on Peng Shuai’s status or responded to WTA demands.

Lin Yang contributed to this report.

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