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The disappearance of China’s female tennis star has stimulated the sports elite

Tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared this month after accusing a former Chinese vice premier of sexual misconduct. Two weeks later, she’s still missing like leading figure in sports joined forces with human rights activists and #MeToo campaigners to find her.

In early November, the 35-year-old athlete posted on social media publicly accusing Zhang Gaoli of assaulting her at least once in Tianjin, the city where he holds the top post of the Chinese Communist Party. from 2007 to 2012.

She also claimed in the post that was deleted by censors just minutes after it was published that she had a long-term affair with the powerful political figure, who is 40 years her senior and married. The Financial Times was unable to verify Peng’s post.

The case raised uncomfortable questions about the Chinese Communist Party’s record on women’s rights and civil liberties less than three months before it was held. Winter Olympic Games.

The party’s disciplinary body often vaguely accuses senior officials of sex and other misconduct when purging them, often for alleged corruption. But the detailed allegations against Zhang, who retired without any trace in his official records in 2018, are unprecedented in China, especially from a famous woman. like Peng.

“This is an extraordinary case,” said Yaqiu Wang, a China expert at Human Rights Watch, a US-based advocacy group.

The #MeToo movement has struggled to gather momentum in China © Noel Celis / AFP via Getty Images

While Peng has not been seen or heard from since the post, her disappearance has attracted global attention. Her case came into the spotlight again this week after Chinese state broadcaster CGTN released a statement quoting Peng as saying she was resting at home, and that she was neither missing nor unwell. .

The claim drew immediate skepticism from many who suggested it was fake or was written under duress. Yun Jiang, a China expert at the Australian National University, said: “No one believes she is safe now.

Just hours later, Steve Simon, executive director of the Women’s Tennis Association, said he was unable to reach Peng and urged her to be allowed to speak freely.

Simon questioned the authenticity of the email and called for her allegations to be “investigated with full transparency and without censorship”. WTA organizes 11 tournaments in China, home to a quarter of the world’s 87m tennis players.

The State Council’s information office, which handles media relations for the government, did not respond to a request for comment. Zhang and Peng could not be reached for comment.

On Friday, Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times, China’s nationalist state-run media, tweeted: “As someone familiar with the Chinese system, I don’t believe Peng Shuai received the retaliation and suppression that the foreign media speculated on for what everyone was talking about. “

Peng is one of the few Chinese tennis players to emerge on the international scene in the past two decades, winning doubles titles at both Wimbledon and the French Open.

Naomi Osaka, four-time Grand Slam champion and highest-paid female athlete in the world, Novak Djokovic, men’s world number one, Serena Williams, who has won most Grand Slam titles, and Chris Evert, broadcaster member and former number one player, this week joined calls in support of Peng’s safety.

“I think the WTA will. . . Choose life over money. . . Human rights, human dignity take precedence. . . I am praying for Peng,” Evert wrote on Twitter.

Wang, at Human Rights Watch, says that while she’s “not very optimistic” about Peng’s future due to China’s long history of forced disappearances and forced confessions, she believes the support can help Peng’s cause.

“The international attention will at least make the Communist Party more cautious about what it wants to do with Peng Shuai,” she said.

However, the episode demonstrated the remarkable power of Chinese censors in dodging signs of public dissent.

After Peng posted her accusations on her official Weibo account, the post and comment about it were quickly blocked even though screenshots of it went viral. The censors subsequently blocked both public and encrypted references to Peng and Zhang.

People who tried to comment on Peng or Zhang online received messages saying their posts “violated relevant laws and regulations”.

Zhang joined the Communist Party’s most powerful body, the Politburo Standing Committee, in 2012. He was appointed Vice Premier a year later.

Peng’s case is the latest sign that the #MeToo movement to tackle discrimination and sexual harassment of women has not gained the same momentum in China as it does in the US and Europe, where there are similar accusations end of career of many famous entertainment, business and political figures.

Men less powerful than Zhang are frequently able to quash such accusations in China, often with the help of state censors and party-controlled courts.

In September, a Beijing court dismissed screenwriter Zhou Xiaoxuan’s landmark sexual harassment accusations against a well-known media personality. In one of the movement’s most famous cases, the court said there was not enough evidence to substantiate her claims.

A China-based women’s rights activist, who requested anonymity, said she hopes Peng will eventually be forced to withdraw her public application and forever be “buried” in the media sector. social media.

She said that although women can publicize lawsuits against celebrities or business people, senior party officials have gone too far.

Yun, at the Australian National University, said Peng showed “a lot of courage and bravery” in continuing his statement. “Confronting seniors [party] Officials can ruin anyone’s life”.

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