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The tennis world is calling on China to prove a Chinese tennis star is safe

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Peng Shuai is one of China's biggest tennis stars. In her prime, she was one of the world's top-ranked players, competing at the U.S. Open, Wimbledon and other major tournaments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There it is - Shuai Peng, with her famous whip (ph) - an incredible performance.

CHANG: But recently she has vanished from the public eye. And as NPR's John Ruwitch reports, it follows a social media post in which she accused one of China's former top leaders of sexual assault.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Early this month, Peng Shuai said she was sexually assaulted by Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier who retired in 2018. Zhang was among the ruling Communist Party's most elite officials. The social media post was quickly removed, but not before it blew up, says Leta Hong Fincher, an expert on feminism in China at Columbia University.

LETA HONG FINCHER: Her accusation was so explosive. I mean, nobody has ever accused a senior Communist Party official of sexual abuse before.

RUWITCH: Then Peng went silent. The CEO of the Women's Tennis Association, Steve Simon, issued a statement commending her for speaking out and calling for a full, fair and transparent investigation. The men's ATP Tour followed suit with its own statement expressing concern about Peng's well-being.

HONG FINCHER: Right after that, we started hearing from these other tennis stars, like Naomi Osaka, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, all tweeting with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai. So that clearly must have put some pressure on the Chinese government.

RUWITCH: This week, Chinese state TV published what it said was an email that Peng sent to the WTA. It said the sexual assault allegation was not true, and she wasn't missing. Instead, Peng supposedly wrote that she was quote, "resting at home and everything is fine" - Hong Fincher, again.

HONG FINCHER: I think everybody almost (laughter) unanimously agrees that this is not Peng Shuai speaking.

RUWITCH: The Chinese Communist Party has a long track record of suppressing dissent and burying accusations against officials. Rights activists, lawyers, businessmen and several #MeToo activists have been threatened, silenced and jailed in recent years. WTA CEO Steve Simon doubted the letter was from Peng. On Wednesday, he issued a fresh statement saying he hasn't been able to reach the player and that the WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she's safe. The Chinese government has yet to oblige and, with less than three months to go before the Beijing Winter Olympics, finds itself in an increasingly uncomfortable spot.

John Ruwitch, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEANE SONG, "ATLANTIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.