A human rights researcher has called for Tennis Australia to use this year’s Australian Open to call for the freedom of Peng Shuai.
Shuai, once ranked No. 14 in the world, disappeared from public view in 2021 after accusing former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her to have sex and maintaining an affair with her.
She later said in an interview with French outlet L’Equipe that the post was “an enormous misunderstanding”.
“I never said anyone sexually assaulted me,” she said.
“I hope that we no longer distort the meaning of this post.”
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The original post on Weibo sparked an international outcry over her safety, and led to the Women’s Tennis Association suspending tournaments in China – a decision that was projected to cost the women’s tour hundreds of millions of dollars.
The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai was the centre of a global movement, and supporters at last year’s Australian Open wearing “Where is Peng Shuai” shirts were told to remove them.
Human Rights Watch researcher Yaqui Wang said Peng’s recent appearances were forced.
“Peng has not only lost her freedom, but has been repeatedly forced to make public appearances during which she has to act like she is happy and free,” Wang said.
“Many prominent women, including athletes around the world have told their ‘MeToo’ story, but few are paying the price Peng is paying.
“Peng Shuai is not free, because the political environment in China dictates that anyone who has levelled such an allegation against such a high level official cannot be truly free.”
A WTA spokesperson told media that “there has not been any change in the WTA position on a return to China and we have only confirmed our 2023 calendar through the US Open”.
“A return to the region will require a resolution to the Peng situation in which she took a bold step in publicly coming forth with the accusation that she was sexually assaulted by a senior Chinese government leader.
“As we would do with any of our players globally, we have called for a formal investigation into the allegations by the appropriate authorities and an opportunity for the WTA to meet with Peng – privately – to discuss her situation.”
The WTA said it had received confirmation that Peng was safe, but was yet to meet with her personally.
23rd seed Zhang Shuai, China’s current top ranked player, said she was hopeful of a return of tennis to Chinese shores.
“Everybody wishes but nobody knows,” she said.