Women’s Tennis Association chairman Steve Simon says a statement purporting to be from missing Chinese player Peng Shuai has only raised his fears about her safety.
Peng had not been heard from since making sexual assault allegations against a retired Chinese Communist Party official until Thursday morning, when a statement allegedly written by Peng was published via a Chinese state-affiliated media and shared on Twitter.
Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai is missing.Credit:Eddie Jim
The statement started by saying, “Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai” and went on to say that everything is fine and she was resting at home.
“Regarding the recent news released on the official website of the WTA, the content has not been confirmed or verified by myself and it was released without my consent,” the statement said.
“The news in the release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true. I am not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you for caring about me.”
The statement asked for her privacy to be respected and said that she looks forward to once again playing tennis for China “if I have the chance in the future”.
But there are fears that Peng could be under house arrest in Tianjin, the port city where she lives, as a punishment for challenging the regime, according to a report in the London Telegraph.
WTA boss Steve Simon released a statement of his own two hours later, calling for Peng to be allowed to speak freely.
“The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” Simon said.
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her. Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government.
“The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe. I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail.
“Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source. Her allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship.
“The voices of women need to be heard and respected, not censored nor dictated to.”
Shuai’s allegation of sexual assault was made on November 2 via the social media network Weibo, where she accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice-premier in Beijing, of having sex with her against her will.
The post was only live for about 20 minutes, but Peng’s social media presence has since disappeared from Weibo (the Chinese-language equivalent of Twitter). The word “wangqiu”, Chinese for tennis, was also censored on the network.
Some of the world’s top tennis players have shared their concerns over Shuai’s disappearance, including Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic.
“I was recently informed of a fellow tennis player that has gone missing shortly after revealing that she has been sexually abused,” said Japan’s Osaka in a statement to Twitter.
“Censorship is never OK at any cost, I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and OK.
“I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way. #whereispengshuai.”
In her Weibo message, Peng claimed to have had a decade-long on-and-off relationship with Zhang, who is married. She alleged the relationship involved sexual contact on several occasions, but that one of those sexual encounters had not been consensual.
“That afternoon, I was very afraid. I didn’t expect it to be like this,” she wrote. “I didn’t agree to have sex with you and kept crying that afternoon.”
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