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Why the International Concern Over Peng Shuai?

A simple question has gripped the sports world and drawn the attention of the White House, United Nations and others:

The Chinese tennis star disappeared from public view for weeks in November after she accused a top Chinese leader of sexual assault, prompting a global chorus of concern for her safety. Then, the editor of a Communist Party-controlled newspaper posted video clips that appear to show Ms. Peng eating at a restaurant and attending a tennis event in Beijing. Days later, the International Olympic Committee said its president had spoken with her in a video call.

But the Women’s Tennis Association has said it remained concerned about Ms. Peng’s ability to communicate freely and has called for Beijing to investigate her accusations. The leaders of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee have voiced similar worries. On Dec. 1, the tennis association announced that it was suspending all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong.

The Biden administration and United Nations human rights office have joined the calls for Beijing to provide proof of Ms. Peng’s well-being.

The suspicions that Ms. Peng withdrew her accusation of sexual assault under official duress are unlikely to be placated by a video interview that she did with a Singaporean newspaper on Sunday. Ms. Peng told the Lianhe Zaobao newspaper that she had not been sexually assaulted, and that her account of what happened had been misunderstood. She also said that she was not under official watch and was free to move around.

But China’s authoritarian government has a long record of coercing and cajoling people to denounce or retract comments that erode the standing of the Communist Party. And human rights groups have said Ms. Peng has probably acted under such pressure.

With only a few months to go before Beijing hosts the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, Ms. Peng’s situation has become another point of tension in China’s fractious relationship with the wider world. The United States, Australia and other Western governments have said they will not send government officials or diplomats to the games, although their athletes will take part.

Peng Shuai, 35 — her family name is pronounced “pung,” and the end of her given name rhymes with “why” — is a three-time Olympian whose tennis career began more than two decades ago.

In February 2014, after winning the doubles crown at Wimbledon with Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan the year before, Ms. Peng rose to become a world No. 1 in doubles, the first Chinese player, male or female, to attain the top rank in either singles or doubles. She and Ms. Hsieh took the 2014 French Open doubles title as well.

Her doubles career underwent a resurgence in 2016 and 2017. But in 2018, she was barred from professional play for six months, with a three-month suspension, after she was found to have tried to use “coercion” and financial incentives to change her Wimbledon doubles partner after the sign-in deadline. She has not competed professionally since early 2020.

Late in the evening on Nov. 2, Ms. Peng posted a long note on the Chinese social platform Weibo that exploded across the Chinese internet.

In the post, she accused Zhang Gaoli, 75, a former vice premier, of inviting her to his home about three years ago and coercing her into sex. “That afternoon, I didn’t consent at first,” she wrote. “I was crying the entire time.”

She and Mr. Zhang began a consensual, if conflicted, relationship after that, she wrote.

Within minutes, censors scrubbed Ms. Peng’s account from the Chinese internet. A near-blackout on her accusations has been in place ever since.

Women in China who come forward as victims of sexual assault and predation have long been met with censorship and pushback. Ms. Peng’s account, which has not been corroborated, was the first to implicate a high-level Communist Party leader. That may explain why the authorities have been extra diligent in silencing all discussion of the matter, at one point even blocking online searches for the word “tennis.”

Zhang Gaoli had served from 2012 to 2017 on China’s top ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee, making him one of the country’s most powerful men.

Mr. Zhang had climbed steadily from running an oil refinery to a succession of leadership posts along China’s fast-growing coast, and had avoided the scandals and controversy that felled other, flashily ambitious politicians.

He became known, if for anything, for his monotone impersonality. On entering China’s top leadership, he invited people to search for anything amiss in his behavior.

“Stern, low-key, taciturn,” summed up one of the few profiles of him in the Chinese media. His interests, Xinhua news agency said, included books, chess and tennis.

The censors might have succeeded had Steve Simon, the head of the Women’s Tennis Association, not spoken out on Nov. 14, calling on Beijing to investigate Ms. Peng’s accusations and stop trying to bury her case.

On Dec. 1, the tennis association announced it was ending all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong. Mr. Simon cited concerns about Ms. Peng’s safety, and added in a statement that “unless China takes the steps we have asked for, we cannot put our players and staff at risk by holding events in China.”

By pulling out of China, the tour stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years.

The International Olympic Committee said that it was engaging in “quiet diplomacy” to untangle the situation. And on Nov. 21, the committee said its president, Thomas Bach, spoke with Ms. Peng for half an hour that day by video. She told Mr. Bach and two other I.O.C. officials that “she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected,” the committee said. A photo of Ms. Peng smiling on a large screen in front of Mr. Bach appeared alongside the committee’s announcement.

After the committee shared the news, the W.T.A. said it remained concerned. Ten days later, Mr. Simon announced the tour’s withdrawal from China.

“While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation,” he said.

The next day, the I.O.C. announced it had held a second video call with Ms. Peng, but released no details of what was said, who was on the call, or how it had been arranged.

Fellow tennis luminaries — including Naomi Osaka, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal and Billie Jean King — have spoken out in support of Ms. Peng. The Spanish soccer star Gerard Piqué posted with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai to his 20 million Twitter followers.

Pretty much nothing. Not officially, at least.

Instead, Chinese state-run news organizations and their employees have been the sole quasi-official voices from the country to weigh in. Notably, they are doing so on Twitter, which is blocked within China. Their messages appear to be aimed specifically at persuading the wider world, while domestic Chinese media outlets remain silent at home.

First, a Chinese state broadcaster posted an email on Twitter, written in English and attributed to Ms. Peng, that disavowed the assault accusation and said she was just “resting at home.” Mr. Simon dismissed the email as a crude fabrication and said it only deepened his concerns for the tennis star’s safety. (In her latest interview, Ms. Peng said that the email was a translation of a statement she had written in Chinese, and that it reflected her views.)

Then, Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of the Communist Party-controlled newspaper Global Times, began sharing videos with his 450,000 Twitter followers that appeared to show Ms. Peng.

On Nov. 21, Mr. Hu posted another clip, which he said had been shot by a Global Times employee, that shows Ms. Peng at the opening ceremony of a tennis event in Beijing.

Ms. Peng did the brief interview with the Singaporean newspaper while she was attending an event in Shanghai to promote cross-country skiing. A Chinese journalist also shared video on Twitter of her meeting Yao Ming, the towering Chinese former basketball star, at the ski event.

The Women’s Tennis Association was not persuaded by the images.

“As we have consistently stated, these appearances do not alleviate or address the W.T.A.’s significant concerns about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion,” the association said.

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