TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — A Chinese professional tennis player not seen in public since she accused a former top government official of sexual assault purportedly sent an email claiming she was safe and that the allegation was false, a message that only amplified concerns about her safety and demands for information about her well-being and whereabouts.
These calls were met so far with silence.
Since Peng Shuai’s accusation two weeks ago of being sexually assaulted by Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai, Chinese officials have not made any public statements. Domestic media have not reported the first #MeToo incident in China, and the online conversation about it has been heavily censored.
Steve Simon, the chairman and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, questioned the authenticity of what Chinese state media said was an email intended for him in which Peng says she is safe and that the assault allegation is untrue. This was published Thursday by CGTN (the international arm Chinese state broadcaster CCTV).
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” Simon wrote.
The statement, he added, “only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.”
Simon has demanded a full investigation, and the WTA said it is prepared to pull tournaments out of the country if it doesn’t get an appropriate response. Many top players, including Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka have spoken out. The hashtag WhereisPengShuai was popular online.
Heather Bowler, spokeswoman for the International Tennis Federation, stated Thursday that they are in touch with the Chinese Tennis Association. They also maintain a close relationship with the WTA as well as the International Olympic Committee.
“Player safety is always our top priority and we support a full and transparent investigation into this matter,” Bowler wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “While we have not spoken to the player, we are in touch with the national tennis association in China (CTA) in the event they may be able to provide any further information or updates.”
China has largely suppressed a #MeToo movement that flourished briefly in 2018 and is forging ahead with the Beijing Winter Olympics in February despite boycott calls by activists and some overseas politicians over China’s human rights record.
Asked repeatedly about the case, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said again on Thursday that he is unaware of it.
Peng, 35 years old is an ex-No. 1-ranked player in women’s doubles who won titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.
She wrote in a lengthy social media post on Nov. 2 that Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier who was a member of the ruling Communist Party’s top leadership committee, had forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals three years ago.
The post was quickly deleted from her verified account on Weibo, a leading Chinese social media platform, but screenshots of the explosive accusation quickly spread across China’s internet. The post was quickly deleted from her verified account on Weibo, a leading Chinese social media platform. However, screenshots of the explosive accusation spread rapidly across China’s internet. This raises questions as to whereabouts she may be and whether she is currently being held.
Zhang (75 years old) was removed from the public eye after he retired in 2018. This is a common occurrence for ex-high ranking officials. Zhang isn’t known to be in close contact with current leaders.
Peng’s accusation is the first high profile accusation of sexual assault against a powerful politician in China. Past accusations touched on prominent figures in the non-profit world, academia and media, but never reached the Communist Party’s top officials or state-owned companies.
CGTN made the statement through Twitter. Twitter is currently blocked in China as are many other platforms like Google or Facebook. The statement was not posted on Chinese social media. There were also no mentions of the purported email that is behind the Great Firewall which seperates the Chinese internet and the rest of world.
Some internet users bypassed these controls by posting about news stories in their private social networks. Freeweibo.com, which records censored posts from Weibo, said searches for “Peng Shuai” and “Zhang Gaoli” were both among the top 10 searched topics on Thursday.
Searches for Peng Shuai’s name on China’s Sogou search engine turn up only articles about her tennis career. She no longer has comments on Weibo and people cannot search for her Weibo accounts.
Peng wrote that Zhang’s wife guarded the door during the alleged assault, which followed a round of tennis. Peng also wrote that the couple had sex seven-years ago and had been in love ever since. Also, she said that speaking out would prove difficult.
“Yes, aside from myself, I kept no evidence, no recordings, no videos, only the real experience of my twisted self. Even if I’m destroying myself, like throwing an egg against a rock, or a moth flying into a flame, I will still speak out the truth about us,” the now-deleted post said.
Her allegation came just three months before Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics, which have been the target of a boycott campaign from multiple human rights organizations largely over China’s repression of Uyghur Muslims. United States diplomats may boycott the Games. Rights groups have likened Beijing’s 2022 Olympics to Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. China denies any violations of human rights and claims that its actions are part counterterrorism programs.
Peng participated in the Olympics three times. The IOC said Thursday in a statement that, “We have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe.”
Switzerland’s IOC is based in Switzerland and derives 73% from broadcast rights sales and 18% from sponsors. It has never criticised China and frequently reiterates its position that it is a sports company and does not have the authority to make decisions about policies of sovereign states.
Since it relies on China’s income more than either the IOC nor the NBA, the WTA has the ability to take pressure off. China banned broadcast rights for the basketball league, costing it an estimated $400million. This was after Daryl Morey (Houston Rockets) tweeted his support to protestors from Hong Kong.
Simon’s statement said Peng has displayed incredible courage, but that he is still concerned about her safety.
“The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe,” he wrote. “I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communications, to no avail.”
Stephen Wade (Associated Press Sports Writer) in Tokyo contributed