The senior official overseeing women’s tennis on Wednesday directly contested the account presented by Chinese state media that a top professional player had quashed the sexual assault allegations against a senior Communist Party official, saying he feared for his well-being.
China Global Television Network, an English-language broadcaster controlled by the Chinese government, Wednesday distributed an email that said was written by Peng Shuai, the highest ranked player. Ms. Peng has not been seen in public since November 2, when she posted the accusation on social media against Zhang Gaoli, a former deputy prime minister.
According to CGTN, Ms Peng said in her email that “I am not missing and neither am I safe. I just had a rest at home and everything is fine. The email also stated that the sexual assault allegation “is not true.”
Steve Simon, the general manager of the WTA Tour, questioned the veracity of the email.
“The statement released today by Chinese state media regarding Peng Shuai only raises my concerns for his safety and fate,” he said in a statement. “I find it hard to believe that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is attributed to him.”
Mr. Simon said he made several attempts to reach Ms. Peng, without success.
“Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source,” the statement added. “His allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated transparently and without censorship. “
Ms. Peng’s message of November 2 briefly sent shockwaves through Chinese society. Other prominent men have been accused of sexual misconduct amid the nation’s fledgling #MeToo movement. But his accusation touched the highest levels of his political leadership. Mr. Zhang had been a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party, its highest governing body, between 2012 and 2017.
His post and all discussions about it were immediately removed from China’s heavily censored internet. Ms Peng’s verified account on the Weibo social media platform was also deleted, although it appears to have been restored on Thursday, with all posts deleted after the start of 2020.
Neither Mr. Zhang nor the Chinese government have publicly commented on Ms. Peng’s claims, which could not be independently verified. CGTN’s statement does not appear to have been published on China Central Television, its Chinese-language state parent company, or other official Chinese-language media.
Some of the biggest stars in world tennis have spoken out in favor of Ms Peng in recent days and demanded an investigation into Ms Peng’s allegations.
Naomi Osaka from Japan wrote on Twitter that “censorship is never acceptable at any cost”. Chris Evert, the former American world champion, called the “very disturbing” accusations. British tennis player Liam Broady wrote of Ms. Peng’s disappearance, “I can’t believe this is happening even in the 21st century.”
World No. 1 player Novak Djokovic said the limited details surrounding Ms. Peng’s whereabouts were “shocking.”
The WTA’s comments and attention to Ms Peng could hurt the tour’s lucrative business relationship with China, but that didn’t appear to stop the tour from continuing to speak out.
Mr Simon first called on Chinese authorities to investigate Ms Peng’s allegations on Sunday and suggested the tour could cease doing business in China if the WTA “does not see the appropriate results.”
Men’s tennis governing body, the ATP Tour, then weighed in to support calls to investigate Ms Peng’s allegations.
“We were deeply concerned by the uncertainty surrounding the immediate safety and fate of WTA player Peng Shuai,” ATP President Andrea Gaudenzi said in a statement.
The ATP, he wrote, “fully supported the WTA’s call for a full, fair and transparent investigation.”
Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.