BEIJING — Chinese tennis star Zhang Shuai’s disappearance last week after her agent said he witnessed her being assaulted has sparked outrage on social media among many fans. The star’s friends and colleagues have also spoken out, but few activists and feminist organizations have.
In an unsigned note, Zhang’s agent on Wednesday said he had been informed by Zhang’s father that she had been “gang-raped” at a home in China’s eastern city of Ningbo that Zhang used to share with a friend. A man of Chinese or Ukrainian origin is said to have been assaulted in a separate incident.
Zhang, 27, is ranked 17th in the world, and already had a cult following among tennis fans. The case is sure to reach out to Chinese conservatives as well, with other supporters casting the developments as part of a malevolent effort to control women.
The police have said they are investigating the allegations.
The lack of a public reckoning and controversy surrounding the case stands in stark contrast to the outpouring of public discussion, frustration and anger that greeted last year’s disappearance of #MeToo activist Xiao Lei from Hong Kong and mainland China.
The situations differ because Xiao has run afoul of Chinese law and security officials and has been accused of insulting state officials and endangering the interests of the state. She has appealed to the public for help in getting Zhang home.
Zhang’s case mirrors some of the other cases that have spurred online discussion in recent years, such as the 2013 rape of a woman by a Fan Zhendong, a former Chinese tennis pro, who went on to become a popular broadcaster. Two former female tennis players were also accused of having inappropriate relations with coaches, though allegations have not been prosecuted.
In the Zhang case, Zhang’s status as a public figure combined with the victim status of the alleged attacker has made people wonder why athletes like her have become a popular target for sexual assault in the past few years.
In Beijing, many people said Zhang’s case has ignited difficult emotions in a society that controls the thinking of women and doesn’t respect women’s rights.
“I can’t figure out why we still have to feel so angry,” said Shen Zhu, 30, a journalist. “We see more and more women in social media saying inappropriate things every day, but they are mostly so earnest and sincere about it, so sincerely passionate about it.”
Li Zhuoyue, a volunteer organization in Beijing that works with survivors of sexual harassment, said it was impossible to judge a young woman in her twenties about how to behave.
“Li Shuai may have been beaten, raped and raped, but she will never be blamed,” Li said. “This is society that is angry at us.”
Shen said the last Chinese athlete she had followed as closely as Zhang was former Olympic swimmer Sun Yang, who is currently serving a three-year ban for taking a banned substance.