Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai should ‘be heard, not censored’ over MeToo allegations, says association

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The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) on Sunday came out in support of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai and demanded a full and fair investigation into her allegations of sexual harassment against the country’s former vice premier Zhang Gaoli.

“We commend Peng Shuai for her remarkable courage and strength in coming forward. Women around the world are finding their voices so injustices can be corrected,” the WTA said.

On 2 November, Ms Peng, 35, took to a Chinese social media website to describe the assault, which later led to an on-and-off consensual relationship with Mr Zhang.

Her post triggered a firestorm online and swift censorship from Chinese authorities. Reports said that the post was removed within minutes, while searches for her name and even the word “tennis” appeared to be blocked.

The WTA condemned the censorship by Chinese authorities. “Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored. Her accusation about the conduct of a former Chinese leader involving a sexual assault must be treated with the utmost seriousness. In all societies, the behaviour she alleges that took place needs to be investigated, not condoned or ignored,” said Steve Simon, WTA chairman and CEO.

“We expect this issue to be handled properly, meaning the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship,” Mr Simon added.

Mr Zhang, 75, served on the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, the top ruling body in China from 2013 to 2018.

In her post, Ms Peng said: “I know that for someone of your eminence, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid But even if it’s just me, like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you.”

She said that he first assaulted her when she was invited to play tennis with him and his wife. “I never consented that afternoon, crying all the time,” she wrote.

While Ms Peng did not specify a date in her post, she said the relationship began when he was serving in Tianjin, which is believed to be between 2012 and 2017.

Ms Peng added that the two resumed their relationship in 2018 after the vice premier retired.

Ms Peng held the world number one ranking in doubles with the Women’s Tennis Association in 2014. She had won the doubles championship at Wimbledon in 2013 and again at the French Open in 2014.

WTA said that, as an organisation dedicated to women, it is committed to the principles of equality, opportunity and respect.

“Our absolute and unwavering priority is the health and safety of our players. We are speaking out so justice can be done,” the statement said.

While government officials in China have been charged with sexual assault earlier, this is the first time that a #MeToo case has been alleged against a senior Communist Party official.

Women in China have faced pushbacks while coming forward with sexual misconduct allegations. In September, a court in Beijing had ruled against Zhou Xiaoxuan, who became the face of the country’s #MeToo movement after she accused a prominent television anchor of harassment. The court said she had not produced enough evidence against the anchor, who had sued her.

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