The WTA Tour on Sunday called on the Chinese government to investigate allegations of sexual assault made by Peng Shuai against a former Chinese vice premier, while also demanding an end to censorship of the former top-ranked doubles player.

Peng, one of China's biggest sporting stars, alleged on her Weibo social media account on November 2 that Zhang Gaoli, who became a member of the Politburo Standing Committee - China's top decision-making body - coerced her into sex and they later had an on-off consensual relationship.

Peng said in the post, which was deleted around half an hour after it was published, that she could provide no evidence to back her allegations.

Screenshots of the post have circulated on Twitter, which is blocked in China, reinvigorating discussion on that platform about gender relations in China, where men dominate the top levels in politics and business. 

Tennis is in crisis after calls for an investigation into sexual abuse allegations by Peng Shuai

Tennis is in crisis after calls for an investigation into sexual abuse allegations by Peng Shuai

Peng Shuai
Peng Shuai

Peng Shuai, 35, a Chinese tennis star, has accused a high-ranking Communist Party official of sexually assaulting her on her Weibo profile

In the post, Peng, 35, wrote that Zhang, now 75, and his wife arranged to play tennis in Beijing about three years ago and that he later brought her into a room at his home where the assault occurred.

'I was so frightened that afternoon, never thinking that this thing could happen,' the post says.

Rumors and overseas reports about affairs between younger women and leading officials have long been staples of Chinese politics, starting with the founder of the People's Republic, Mao Zedong.

Cases brought against present and former officials under party leader and President Xi Jinping's decade-long anti-corruption campaign also frequently feature accusations of 'lascivious lifestyles,' along with bribery and abusing their positions.

Zhang retired in 2018 and has largely disappeared from public life, as is usual with former Chinese officials.

The Communist Party has increasingly cracked down on civil society, including the #MeToo movement that has struggled to gain traction in the country. 

Peng made the allegations in a lengthy social media post on Weibo which was quickly deleted before her account was heavily censored

Peng made the allegations in a lengthy social media post on Weibo which was quickly deleted before her account was heavily censored

Peng said in the post, which was deleted around half an hour after it was published, that she could provide no evidence to back up her allegations

Peng said in the post, which was deleted around half an hour after it was published, that she could provide no evidence to back up her allegations

The China Tennis Association has not commented on the allegations.  

China's internet is heavily censored and the private lives of top leaders are an especially sensitive subject. 

It is the first time that such charges have been made against a senior politician there, and the married Zhang is yet to respond. 

Zhang was a vice premier between 2013 and 2018 and served on the Politburo Standing Committee between 2012 and 2017.

Concerns among the global tennis community have grown as Peng has not been seen since the post.

The WTA said in a statement that it will seek a, 'full, fair and transparent investigation into sexual assault allegations' against a former Chinese leader.

'The recent events in China concerning a WTA player, Peng Shuai, are of deep concern,' said WTA Tour chairman and CEO Steve Simon in a statement.

Peng, 35, is a famous Chinese tennis player and former winner of the Wimbledon doubles title

'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.'

Peng was the world number one doubles player in 2014, the first Chinese player to achieve a top ranking, after winning the doubles titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.

China, the focus of the Tour's most aggressive expansion over the last decade, hosted nine tournaments in the 2019 season, including the elite WTA Finals, with a total $30.4 million prize money on offer.

The season-ending WTA Finals, contested by the world's top eight singles players and eight doubles teams, had a prize purse of $14 million in 2019 when it was played in Shenzhen for the first time.

Peng alleged that senior politician Zhang Gaoli, 40 years her senior, sexually assaulted her in a bedroom at his house, while his wife was present

Peng alleged that senior politician Zhang Gaoli, 40 years her senior, sexually assaulted her in a bedroom at his house, while his wife was present

The Finals was cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and moved this year to Guadalajara, Mexico.

The WTA said that the tournament will return to Shenzhen from 2022 and the Chinese city will host every edition until 2030.

'I think everybody fully understands what's at stake here on many different fronts as we're going through it,' Simon told the New York Times on Sunday. 

'I think we're certainly, from players to board to council, fully united that the only acceptable approach is that of doing what is right.'

Simon told the Times no one at the WTA Tour has talked directly to Peng but has received assurances from the Chinese Tennis Association that she is safe.

'We've received confirmation from several sources, including the Chinese Tennis Association, that she is safe and not under any physical threat,' Simon told the Times.   

'The recent events in China concerning a WTA player, Peng Shuai, are of deep concern. Her accusation about the conduct of a former Chinese leader involving a sexual assault must be treated with the utmost seriousness. We expect this issue to be handled properly, meaning the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship,' Simon said in a statement. 

The married Zhang (above) served as the Chinese government's senior Vice Premier until 2018

We want to see a full investigation on this. If that isn't the case and if they are not cooperative, then we'll have to make some decisions. But we're not going to back off this position,' he said.

'In this situation, the WTA issue is about potential sexual assault of one of our players. That is something that simply can't be compromised.

'If at the end of the day, we don't see the appropriate results from this, we would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China if that's what it came to.'

In recent years the women's tour has become increasingly reliant on the Chinese market to host events, having become the sport's biggest growth area since the emergence of former US and French Open champion Li Na.

While all events in Asia this autumn were cancelled due to the Covid crisis, in 2019 there were 10 in China on the main WTA Tour.

Zhang is a prominent member of the CCP who until 2018 was a member of the powerful seven-man standing committee of the political bureau (pictured meeting President Putin)

Zhang is a prominent member of the CCP who until 2018 was a member of the powerful seven-man standing committee of the political bureau (pictured meeting President Putin)

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