The UN has called on Chinese authorities to give proof of the whereabouts of tennis star Peng Shuai, as the White House said it was “deeply concerned” and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) said it was prepared to pull its tournaments out of China over the matter.
Peng, who is one of China's most recognizable sports stars, has not been seen in public since she accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex at his home, according to screenshots of a since-deleted social media post dated 2 November.
Liz Throssell, a spokesperson for UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet, said: "It would be important to have proof of her whereabouts and wellbeing and we would urge that there be an investigation with full transparency into her allegations of sexual assault."
"According to available information, the former world doubles No. 1 hasn't been heard from publicly since she alleged on social media that she was sexually assaulted. We would stress that it is important to know where she is and know her state, know about her wellbeing," Throssell added.
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki also called for the Chinese government to provide “independent, verifiable proof” of Peng’s whereabouts. Shortly after the UN call, photos purporting to show the tennis player were released by a Chinese state-affiliated journalist.
The head of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) Steve Simon has said he is willing to lose hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business in China if Peng is not fully accounted for and her allegations are not properly investigated.
"We're definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it," Simon said in an interview Thursday with CNN. "Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business," added Simon.
"Women need to be respected and not censored," said Simon.
Andrea Gaudenzi, the executive chairman of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), which governs men’s tennis, released a second statement further stressing concern about Peng’s welfare. “Developments in recent days in the case of Peng Shuai are deeply unsettling,” he said.
“Her safety is our most immediate concern and clarity is required on the situation. The need for verifiable direct communication with her is vital.”
The men’s world No 1, Novak Djokovic, voiced his concern following his victory over Britain’s Cam Norrie at the ATP Finals in Turin, and said he supported “100%” the WTA’s threat to pull events out of China. “I support the statement of WTA,” Djokovic told reporters.
“The whole tennis community, needs to back [Peng] up and her family, make sure that she’s safe and sound because if you would have tournaments on Chinese soil without resolving this situation, it would be a little bit strange. I do understand why WTA has taken a stance like that.”
He added: “It’s important because this is horrifying. I mean, a person is missing. I hope that [we] find her very soon. It’s terrible. I mean, this could happen to anybody in any part of the world. It concerns the tennis world because she has been an international athlete for many years. She deserves at least our support.”
On Thursday, Serena Williams also voiced her concern and said that she was devastated and shocked to hear about the news.
"I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible," Williams wrote on Twitter. "This must be investigated and we must not stay silent."
Tennis' popularity in China has grown rapidly over the past few decades, with several Chinese players breaking into the global rankings. The women's game, in particular, is a big market, thanks in part to the success of Chinese tennis star Li Na, who in 2011 became Asia's first grand slam singles tennis champion when she won the French Open, followed by a second major title at the 2014 Australian Open.
In recent years, the WTA has made a big push into China. In 2019, the WTA Finals relocated from Singapore to the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, entering into a lengthy ten-year deal.