On Friday, the UN demanded proof of Peng Shuai’s whereabouts and well-being as international concerns grew for the tennis star, who has been missing since she claimed she had been sexually abused by a former deputy prime minister of China.
The UN insisted on a completely open investigation of the allegations of Peng, formerly the world’s highest ranked doubles player, against the Communist Party’s great Zhang Gaoli.
Tennis stars, sports bodies and governments and human rights defenders also spoke for Peng, 35, and demanded information.
The head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) said he was prepared to sever lucrative business relations with China if Peng remains unknown and her allegations of sexual abuse are not investigated.
Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka have also expressed concern about one of China’s biggest players ever.
“It would be important to have proof of her whereabouts and well-being,” Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the UN Office for Human Rights, told reporters in Geneva.
“According to available information, Peng, a former world number one double, has not been heard from in public since she claimed on social media that she had been sexually abused.
“We call for an investigation with full transparency into her allegations of sexual assault.”
WTA threatens China to withdraw
Peng claimed on Chinese social media site Weibo earlier this month that Zhang, now in her seventies, had “forced” her to have sex during a long-running on-off relationship.
The allegations were quickly scrubbed from the Twitter-like platform and she has not been seen since.
The WTA, the world’s foremost body for women’s tennis, has demanded proof that Peng is safe.
Its CEO Steve Simon said he was willing to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in Chinese business in one of the WTA’s largest markets to guarantee Peng’s security.
“We are definitely willing to pull our business and deal with any complications that come with it,” Simon told CNN.
“Women must be respected and not censored,” he added.
Tennis legend Serena Williams also demanded an investigation.
“I am overwhelmed and shocked to hear the news about my peer, Peng Shuai,” the former single world set wrote on Twitter.
“This must be investigated and we must not be silent.”
Peng represented China at the Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro Olympics and won gold for China at the 2010 Asian Games.
She is a former champion at Wimbledon and the French Open.
France said the international community and sports authorities were concerned about Peng’s situation.
“We are concerned about the lack of information,” said the French Foreign Ministry.
“We call on the Chinese authorities to implement their commitments in the fight against violence against women.”
The Lawn Tennis Association, the sport’s governing body in the UK, offered its assistance to the WTA in its efforts to establish Peng’s safety.
Peng’s claims brought the #MeToo movement to the highest levels of China’s ruling Communist Party for the first time.
“The Chinese government has systematically silenced the country’s #MeToo movement,” said Doriane Lau, Amnesty International’s China researcher.
“Given that it also has a zero tolerance for criticism, it is deeply worrying that Peng Shuai seems to be missing,” she said.
China has repeatedly refused to comment on her fate or case.
But Hu Xijin, the editor of the state-run Global Times, tweeted on Friday that he did not believe that “Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for what people were talking about.”
Earlier this week, the state CGTN posted a screenshot on Twitter of what it said was an email written by Peng to Simon and other WTA officials.
In the email, Peng claims that her previous accusations are “not true” and says that she “rests at home and everything is fine”.
But doubts were quickly flagged about the awkward language used in the alleged email and the cursor visible in the screenshot.
Simon said he had a hard time believing the email was genuine.
“I do not think there is any validity in that and we will not be comfortable until we have a chance to talk to her,” he said.
Amnesty’s Lau said: “China’s state media has a track record of forcing statements from individuals under duress, or simply fabricating them.”