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By Tony Munroe
BEIJING (Reuters) - Outcry over Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai's whereabouts escalated as the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) threatened to pull tournaments out of China over her disappearance and the White House asked Beijing to prove she was safe.
Former doubles world number one Peng has not been seen or heard from publicly since she said on Chinese social media on Nov. 2 that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli coerced her into sex and they later had an on-off consensual relationship.
Neither Zhang or the Chinese government have commented on her allegation. Peng's social media post was quickly deleted and the topic has been blocked from discussion on China's heavily censored internet.
Concern among the global tennis community and beyond has grown over Peng's safety and whereabouts since her allegation, with the WTA calling for an investigation.
Some of the world's top tennis players, including Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, as well as the German Olympic Committee, have used the social media hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
The White House on Friday called for the Chinese government to provide "independent, verifiable proof" of Peng's whereabouts and safety.
"We are deeply concerned by reports that Peng Shuai appears to be missing after accusing a former [People's Republic of China] senior official of sexual assault," said spokesperson Jen Psaki.
French sports minister Roxana Maracineany called for transparency.
"Our country is deeply committed to the respect of human rights. Transparency is absolutely necessary on accusations of sexual assault such as the situation of Peng Shuai," she wrote on Twitter on Friday.
"We are following this issue closely with the tennis authorities and the Quai d'Orsay (foreign ministry)."
The issue has emerged as China prepares to host the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February amid calls from global rights groups and others for a boycott over its human rights record. The International Olympic Committee has declined to comment on Peng's matter, saying it believed "quiet diplomacy" offered the best opportunity for a solution.
Liz Throssell, a U.N. human rights spokesperson, called for proof of Peng's whereabouts and wellbeing as well as a transparent investigation into her allegations.
WTA Chief Executive Steve Simon told CNN and other U.S. media outlets on Thursday that the tour would consider pulling tournaments worth tens of millions of dollars out of China.
In a statement to Reuters on Friday, Simon said the WTA was "at a crossroads" with China.
"We continue to call for independent and verifiable proof that Peng Shuai is safe and that her sexual assault allegation will be investigated fully, fairly and without censorship. If not, the WTA is prepared to do what is right," he said.
FOCUS OF EXPANSION
Hu Xijin, editor of China's Global Times, responded to Simon's comments to CNN on Friday on Twitter, saying "don't use a coercive tone when expressing any concern to China."
"Perhaps you did it out of goodwill. But you should understand China, including understanding how the system you dislike has promoted the actual rights of the 1.4 billion Chinese," said Hu, whose newspaper is published by the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily.
The WTA said it was not responding to Hu's tweet.
China has been the focus of the WTA's most aggressive expansion over the last decade and hosted nine tournaments in the 2019 season with a total $30.4 million of prize money on offer.
The season-ending WTA Finals had a prize purse of $14 million in 2019 when it was played in Shenzhen for the first time.
The Finals were cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and moved this year to Guadalajara, Mexico, but the WTA has said it will return to Shenzhen from 2022 until 2030.
Streaming platform iQiyi is the WTA's digital rights partner in China, signing a 10-year deal reportedly worth $120 million. The deal commenced in 2017.
HEAVILY CENSORED IN CHINA
The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai has so far racked up more than 32 million mentions on Facebook's Instagram and Twitter, according to hashtag analysis website BrandMentions. Both platforms are blocked in China.
In contrast, the topic remains heavily censored in China's tightly controlled cyberspace. As of Friday, searches for the WTA's official account on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform yielded no results although its account remained available. Peng's name on Weibo also continues to show no search results.
Peng had not been seen or heard from since her post until Wednesday, when the WTA's Simon said he had received an email purporting to be from Peng and denying the allegations of sexual assault, which he cast doubt over. A Chinese state media outlet also released the letter on Twitter.
Hu, who has a uniquely high profile in China's tightly controlled state media, weighed in on the scandal on Twitter earlier on Friday, saying he does not believe she has been the target of retribution.
"As a person who is familiar with Chinese system, I don't believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for the thing people talked about," he said on Twitter. He did not make any similar comment on his official account on Weibo.
(Reporting by Tony Munroe in Beijing and Nick Mulvenney in Sydney; Additional reporting by Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai, Karolos Grohmann in Berlin, Alexandra Alper, Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington and Julien Pretot in Paris; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Raju Gopalakrishnan, Kim Coghill, Alex Richardson and Daniel Wallis)