Peng Shuai to Jack Ma: The high-profile disappearances in China

Peng Shuai to Jack Ma: The high-profile disappearances in China

World News

The disappearance of former top-ranked doubles star tennis Peng Shuai saw widespread protest from the women’s tennis world, including Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, even as #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag grew. The case is among a string of similar cases involving political dissidents, entertainers, business leaders and others.

Peng Shuai, tennis player

Shuai, a two-time doubles Grand Slam winner, had posted on social media platform Weibo on November 2 that she had been sexually assaulted by former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli. Since then, the player has disappeared, raising concerns about her safety.

A #WhereisPengShuai campaign has taken root less than three months before Beijing is to host the Winter Olympics. The handling of Peng’s accusation has only inflamed criticism, giving ammunition to those who have called for a boycott, according to the New York Times.

She re-appeared over the weekend in Beijing and held a video call with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) is preparing to end all business deals with China.

Peng, 35, is a former No. 1-ranked player in women’s doubles who won titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014. She also participated in three Olympics, making her disappearance all the more prominent with Beijing set to host the Winter Games starting February 4.

Ren Zhiqiang, real estate tycoon

A former real estate tycoon and an outspoken critic of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Zhiqiang had disappeared from public view in February 2020 after writing an essay criticising the Chinese authorities. Calling Xi a “clown”, he hit out at the government’s deficient response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Later that year, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison for corruption.

Referring to a speech by the Chinese premier, Zhiqiang “saw not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes’, but a clown stripped naked who insisted on continuing being emperor”.

Zhiqiang is the former chairman of the state-owned Beijing Huayuan Group Co. Ltd. and is a member of the CCP. He is considered to be one of the most influential critics of the Chinese Communist Party.

Jack Ma, tech billionaire

Alibaba founder Jack Ma retreated from public view after criticising Chinese regulators in an October 2020 speech, leading to rumours about his detention.

Ma had called for reform in China’s regulatory system, described the country’s financial watchdog as a “pawnshop” regulator, and suggested that the system “stifled business innovation”.

Days later, the government ordered Ma’s Ant Group, a financial service that grew out of Alibaba’s online payments business, to suspend a planned stock market debut in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

The absence was first noticed earlier this month, after the outspoken billionaire failed to appear in the final episode of Africa’s Business Heroes, a TV show in which he was to be a judge. The Alibaba Group, which Ma co-founded more than two decades ago, cited a scheduling conflict as reason for his absence.

However, his friends said it wasn’t true and that he decided to keep quiet following criticism over his comments, according to DW. Appearing in a video two months later, he was seen addressing rural educators at an event that was streamed live but did not mention his disappearance.

Chen Qiushi, citizen journalist

When the earliest of COVID-19 cases being reported from Wuhan made it the outbreak’s epicentre, Quishi travelled to the city, shot and uploaded videos showing the state of affairs. He was taken away by the authorities in February last year and resurfaced 600 days later. “Over the past year and eight months, I have experienced a lot of things. Some of it can be talked about, some of it can’t,” he said.

Lu Guang, photographer

An award-winning Chinese photographer went missing in November 2018, with his wife claiming he may have been detained by state security officers while visiting China’s far-flung western Xinjiang region. Guang, a three-time World Press Photo award winner, had been invited to take part in photography events in the regional capital, Urumqi, in late October, his wife, Xu Xiaoli, said in online posts.

She lost touch with her husband on November 3, 2018 while he was travelling alone in the southern city of Kashgar and has not heard from him since, Xu said. She later contacted the wife of the person who invited her husband to Xinjiang and was told both men had been taken away by state security officers, Xu said.

Lu’s prize-winning work has largely focused on sensitive environmental and social issues in China, including industrial pollution, drug addiction and people living with AIDS. Beijing has faced an outcry from activists, academics, foreign governments and UN rights experts over mass detentions and strict surveillance of the ethnic Uighur minority and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang.

In September 2019, Lu’s wife tweeted that he had been released a few months earlier and was home safe.

Duan Weihong, businesswoman

Businesswoman Duan Weihong disappeared in 2017 and her husband, Desmond Shum, said he didn’t hear from her for four years until he was preparing to publish a book about corruption among Chinese elites, The Associated Press reported. Shum told Time magazine his wife begged him in a phone call not to publish his book, “Red Roulette.”

Duan, also known as Whitney Duan, was cited by The New York Times in a 2012 series of articles about the family wealth of then-Premier Wen Jiabao, China’s No. 2 leader. It remains unclear what exactly prompted her disappearance.

Zhao Wei, actress

One of China’s most popular actresses, Zhao Wei has been out of public view since August. Her films and TV shows were removed from online streaming platforms, her name removed from credits of movies and television programs. Even though Wei was reportedly spotted in eastern China in September, her exact whereabouts remain unclear, DW reported. Her Weibo account was also shut down.

Chinese state newspaper Global Times said that Zhao was “widely known as a billionaire investor surrounded with lawsuits” and that she and her husband had previously been banned from “China’s securities markets” for five years for market violations.

Ai Weiwei, artist and activist

Among China’s high-profile artists and activists, Ai Weiwei was arrested at the Beijing airport in 2011 and spent 81 days in detention without charge.

He later revealed that he had been taken to a secret detention centre, where he was kept under round-the-clock surveillance. He was released after 81 days amid intense international pressure. “I felt powerless in secret detention,” he told The Times correspondent Anthony Loyd in 2020. “They said that if I did ever get finally released then my son, who was two, wouldn’t recognise me. That moment gave me a sense of how cruel authority can be to an individual. I’m lucky it didn’t destroy me.”

Weiwei helped design the 2008 Beijing Olympics Bird’s Nest stadium before falling out with the Chinese authorities.

After being allowed to leave China in 2015, he lived in Germany and UK, and moved to Portugal in 2021.

Meng Hongwei, former Interpol president

In October 2018, the first-ever Chinese president of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, vanished mid-way through his four-year term while on a trip to China, according to a DW report. It subsequently emerged that he had been detained, accused of bribery and other alleged crimes. Interpol then announced that Meng had stepped down from his post at the helm of the organisation. He was later sentenced to over 13 years in prison.

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