Tennis star Peng Shuai has not been seen or heard from publicly since early November when she accused a former vice-premier of sexually assaulting her.

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 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. (Reuters)

An outcry over the whereabouts of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has escalated as the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) said it was prepared to pull its tournaments out of China if they were not satisfied with the response to her sexual assault allegation.

WTA chief executive Steve Simon told various US media outlets on Thursday the tour would consider pulling tournaments worth tens of millions of dollars out of China.

"We're definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it," he told CNN in an interview.

"Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business. Women need to be respected and not censored."

Former doubles world number one Peng has not been seen or heard from publicly since she said on Chinese social media in early November 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 and the world's top players, including Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, tweeting #WhereIsPengShuai.

READ MORE: Tennis world concerned over whereabouts of China's Peng Shuai

Winter Olympics

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 (IOC) said it would not comment on the matter.

"Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature," an IOC spokesperson said. "This explains why the IOC will not comment any further at this stage."

US Representative Jim Banks of Indiana said he has written to US President Joe Biden about Peng's disappearance, urging him to raise her case with China and to warn Beijing it could have a negative impact on the Winter Olympics.

On Wednesday, WTA's Simon cast doubt on an email, which was also released by a Chinese state media outlet on Twitter, purporting to be from Peng and denying the allegations of sexual assault.

"I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her," he said.

READ MORE: China court hears #MeToo case after more than two years

By Friday, the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai had racked up over 32 million mentions on Facebook's Instagram, which is also blocked in China, as well as Twitter, according to hashtag analysis website BrandMentions.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies