BEIJING – The professional women’s tennis tour manager questioned the legitimacy of what Chinese state media described as the retraction of a Grand Slam doubles champion who accused a former senior government official of sexual assault.
WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said on Wednesday that a statement attributed to Peng Shuai and tweeted by CGTN, the international arm of Chinese state broadcaster CCTV – which said it contained content from an email she wrote to Simon – “only raises my concerns about his safety and his whereabouts.”
âThe WTA and the rest of the world need independent, verifiable proof that they are safe,â said Simon. “I have tried several times to reach her via many forms of communication, to no avail.”
The WTA has said it is ready to pull tournaments out of the country if it does not get a proper response.
Peng is a 35-year-old Chinese woman and a former No. 1 player in the women’s doubles who won titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and Roland Garros in 2014.
She wrote in a lengthy social media post earlier this month that a former Deputy Prime Minister and member of the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee had forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals .
The post was deleted from his verified account on Weibo, one of China’s major social media platforms, and the country’s state-controlled media removed all reporting on the case.
Simon, who on Sunday called for a full investigation and demanded that Peng not be censored, questioned on Wednesday the authenticity of what CGTN said was an email to him in which Peng says she is. safe and that the assault allegation is “not true”.
âI find it hard to believe that Peng Shuai actually wrote down the email we received or believes what is attributed to him,â Simon said. “Peng Shuai showed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former senior Chinese government official.
âPeng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source. His allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated transparently and without censorship. Women’s voices must be heard and respected, not censored or dictated to. “
Top players including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic, as well as ATP President Andrea Gaudenzi have spoken, and #WhereisPengShuai is all the rage online.
“I am devastated and shocked to hear the news from my peer, Peng Shuai”, Williams posted on Twitter Thursday. “I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This needs to be investigated and we must not remain silent. I send love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time. #whereispengshuai “
I am devastated and shocked to hear the news from my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not remain silent. I send love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time. #whereispengshuai pic.twitter.com/GZG3zLTSC6
– Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) November 18, 2021
When asked several times about the case, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian again said on Thursday that he was unaware.
The CGTN is one of the many propaganda tools used by the ruling Communist Party to try to influence foreign opinion. He has been sanctioned on numerous occasions by the British television regulator Ofcom for broadcasting a forced confession by a British businessman, a bookseller in Hong Kong and an employee of the British consulate in Hong Kong.
Earlier this month, Peng wrote that Zhang Gaoli had forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals after playing tennis three years ago. She said that Zhang’s wife was guarding the door during the incident.
Her post also stated that they had had sex once seven years ago and that she had feelings for him after that.
As usual for retired Chinese officials, Zhang, 75, disappeared from public view after retiring in 2018 and is not known to have intimate professional or political ties to the current rulers.
Peng won 23 tour-level doubles titles and was a semi-finalist in singles at the 2014 US Open. She has not toured since the Qatar Open in February 2020, before the pandemic COVID-19 doesn’t force tennis to take a break.
Peng also participated in three Olympics. The International Olympic Committee and China are hosting the Beijing Winter Games from February 4.
The IOC, which said on Wednesday it was in contact with the International Tennis Federation, released a statement Thursday after the statement attributed to Peng was tweeted by the CGTN.
“We have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by the assurances that she is safe,” the IOC said in its statement.
International Tennis Federation spokeswoman Heather Bowler said Thursday the governing body is in contact with the China Tennis Association and liaising with the WTA and the International Olympic Committee.
âPlayer safety is always our top priority and we support a full and transparent investigation into this matter,â Bowler wrote in an email to The Associated Press. âAlthough we have not spoken to the player, we are in contact with the national tennis association in China (CTA) in case they may be able to provide additional information or updates.â
Peng’s charge was the first against a senior government official since the #MeToo movement took hold in China in 2018 before being largely shut down by authorities the same year.