Beijing (AFP) -
China on Monday stayed silent over growing overseas concern for tennis star Peng Shuai, who has not been heard from since accusing a powerful politician of sexual abuse -- the first time the #MeToo movement has reached the top echelons of the ruling Communist Party.
On Sunday, the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) said in a statement that Peng's claims should be 'investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship,' after American great Chris Evert had voiced fears for the former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion's safety.
But details of Peng's reported accusations, made earlier this month, that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted her remained scrubbed from China's internet, and searches for their names on key portals came back empty.
Searches for her account on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform also returned no results, though the account was still accessible via a direct web link.
China's national tennis association did not respond to AFP requests for comment.
In its statement, the WTA's chairman Steve Simon said the events concerning Peng were 'of deep concern' to tennis's governing body and called for her claims to be 'treated with the utmost seriousness'.
'Our absolute and unwavering priority is the health and safety of our players. We are speaking out so justice can be done,' the statement said.
Evert, the 18-time Grand Slam winner, became the highest profile current or former player in the sport to join social media expressions of concern that have given rise to the Twitter hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
Evert called the situation 'very disturbing.'
'I've known Peng since she was 14; we should all be concerned; this is serious; where is she? Is she safe? Any information would be appreciated,' Evert tweeted.
Earlier this month, Peng, 35, reportedly wrote on social media that Zhang -- who is in his seventies -- 'forced' her into sex and said they had an on-off relationship lasting several years.
The post appeared to have been deleted quickly and AFP was unable to verify the authenticity of screenshots containing the allegation, or to substantiate the claims made in them.
China's online censors moved rapidly to erase evidence of the reported allegations, and Peng has not been heard from since.