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At the National Tennis Centre in Beijing fans flocked around their star player, Peng Shuai. It was 2014 and, in her home country, Peng was considered tennis royalty. The first Chinese tennis player, male or female, to become a world No 1, Peng had just cruised to victory 6-4, 6-4 to take the China Open title alongside doubles partner Andrea Sestini Hlavackova. There was thunderous applause. For the Czech player, it was an unprecedented scene in a nation where she had only ever witnessed the most lukewarm of receptions for the women's game.
“She had to create a little bubble to stay away from fans because otherwise they would eat her alive,” recalls Hlavackova, the first close colleague of the Chinese icon to agree to be interviewed since Peng’s explosive rape allegations about former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli which sparked a #MeToo story of seismic proportions. Millions of people around the world have since demanded to know, “Where is Peng Shuai?”.
People who know her best are afraid to speak out given fear of retaliation by the Chinese state. At the WTA Finals in Guadalajara last week, Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-wei – Peng’s doubles partner when she won Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014 – was asked whether she had attempted to make contact. Hsieh’s response was muted.
“As you may know, I had a hard time getting a visa here, so I’m not focusing on other stuff,” she said. “I hope she’s OK.” Hlavackova, though, wants to keep the conversation about her former colleague alive. For the Pilsen-born player, who partnered with Peng between 2014 and 2017, her eyes were opened to the frenzied experience of super fandom as she watched match-goers fawn over Peng.
Second only to Li Na in status – the former world No 2 and China’s only tennis player to win a major singles title (she won two) – Peng’s quiet character belies the strong emotional connection with her home nation. “One of my first experiences in China was in Wuhan playing with her,” Hlavackova says. “Usually for the Chinese tournaments it’s tough to feel the energy [from the crowd], but the first time we walked on court the stands were full and they were really loving her. It was a different level.”
Peng, 35, was introduced to tennis by her uncle when she was only eight. Growing up in the central Chinese province of Hunan, she rose to prominence aged 13 overnight after beating a player five years her senior. For Peng, who underwent surgery for a heart defect only a year earlier aged 12, it marked the beginning of a phenomenal rise. She moved to the United States to train, and a haul of trophies followed.
Twenty-five professional titles in singles and doubles, world No 1 in doubles, she competed at three Olympic Games and earned $10 million in prize money, as well as reaching a world ranking singles high of 14. Hlavackova recalls Peng’s extraordinary work ethic. Having played both her opening singles and doubles matches at the 2017 Shenzhen Open, Peng said her racket was giving her trouble. That evening she decided to drag Hlavackova back to the practice courts. Three hours later they were still there.
“I don’t think I’m a give-up kind of person but I left because I couldn’t move any more,” the 35- year-old says now. “She kept going and going. It comes from her nature and the way they operate in China, the way they practise. Her dedication was incredible to me.”
But neither Peng's high flying status nor the countless hours she spent on court perfecting her craft were enough to grant her immunity from the Chinese state's devastating censorship. Peng’s good luck charm – a tennis bag emblazoned with an ox to represent her birth year in the Chinese zodiac – is an ominous symbol for those who follow Chinese superstitions.
For 2021 is again the year of the ox, and tradition has it that individuals meet greater challenges when their zodiac years roll around, an inauspicious pretext for the allegations she made this year, and the turbulence that has followed.
'We’re athletes who fight and I think Peng’s the same'
After more than a year’s absence from tennis, on Nov 2 Peng alleged to her half a million Weibo followers that former senior politician Zhang, 75, had raped her. During a decade-long on-off relationship, she claimed he “forced” her to have sexual relations with him. For Peng, this was not the first time she had gone toe-to-toe with China’s authorities. In 2008 she joined up with Li to speak out about China’s stringent rules for sports stars that saw the state keep 65 per cent of her earnings. They were eventually both granted more liberties, including autonomy over her coaching team and permission to keep more of her income. But that was nothing compared to what happened next.
“She would have known the danger of speaking out,” says Chinese feminist activist Lu Pin, speaking from her home in the US. “Speaking out showed that even someone like her, with power, influence, money and status, could be affected by sexual violence – and also that she can be silenced.”
Peng’s words, her name and even the word “tennis” were censored from Chinese social media. Such state control is not unusual. Sophia Huang Xueqin, a Chinese feminist activist and journalist who has worked with survivors of sexual assault, disappeared in September on her way to the UK. Relatives of people deemed to be problematic by Chinese authorities are often also harassed, detained and interrogated, meanwhile feminists in China skirt the #MeToo censors by using the hashtag #MiTu. Risking their safety, a group of Chinese feminists projected Peng’s face onto buildings and motorway flyovers with slogans such as “Chinese women said enough” and flooded social media with the imagery.
The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai began trending not long after her online footprint was wiped, while Steve Simon, the WTA’s chief executive and chairman, called for an immediate investigation into Peng’s allegations and announced the organisation was prepared to forfeit millions of pounds in an unprecedented sporting boycott of China. A series of disturbing attempts by Chinese state media to confirm Peng’s safety followed, from a photo of her with a pet cat, to a video call with Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee.
As critics called for the Beijing Winter Games in February to be cancelled, Bach insisted Peng appeared “fine” and “relaxed”. Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China director, looked on with her head in her hands. “I think it’s one thing to deny or remain silent, in the face of serious human rights violations,” she says. “It’s a different matter for the head of the IOC to participate in a Chinese government-orchestrated propaganda event. It is saying that sexual assault allegations can and will be ignored by the IOC if they throw up problems for a particular Games.”
Her disgust is shared by Lu, who says the clear message the #WhereIsPengShuai movement had shared was now being muddied. “The government used the IOC to cause confusion," she says. "It was something I’ve seen many times. Though they know they could never put doubt in activists’ minds about the danger Peng Shuai remains in, it planted some confusion in others. And that is the power of the IOC becoming complicit in this, it makes enough people doubt that Peng Shuai’s freedom is being suppressed and causes people to lose interest.”
For Lu and Richardson, there can be no closure until Peng is able to verify her own safety, and a thorough investigation into her allegations takes place. Despite international pressure from star athletes and even President Biden, many fear that China will still attempt to swerve all international demands. "People don't generally change their behaviour unless there will be some sort of negative outcome," says Richardson. "[The IOC] has really revealed itself to be in bed with the Chinese government. It's hard to see how the games go ahead and February without being pretty badly tarnished by this."
For those who know Peng, and the tennis world that remains waiting with bated breath for a positive outcome, Hlavackova says there is nothing she can do but remain hopeful. “What else can we be? We’re not people who give up, we’re athletes who fight and I think she’s the same.”