The head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has questioned the authenticity of an email published by China’s state media in which tennis star Peng Shuai said she was “resting at home” and that an allegation of sexual assault was “not true”.
Peng has not been seen since she accused a top official of sexual assault earlier this month.
WTA chief Steve Simon said the email, which was shared on state media on Wednesday and sent to the WTA, has increased his concern for the player.
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is attributed to her,” Simon said in a statement.
The email, shared by state broadcaster CGTN without a date, header or signature, started: “Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai” and said she had not confirmed or verified “recent news” about her on the WTA website.
“The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true,” it said. “I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.”
Peng revealed in a lengthy social media post earlier this month that a former vice-premier had forced her to have sex with him despite repeated refusals. The post was removed from her verified account on Weibo, a leading Chinese social media platform, and China’s state-controlled media have suppressed all reporting on the case.
The WTA picked up on the allegation the following week, urging the authorities to treat the allegation with the “utmost seriousness”.
Other players have also spoken out including Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka.
In a Twitter post – under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai – Osaka wrote: “Not sure if you’ve been following the news but I was recently informed of a fellow tennis player that has gone missing shortly after revealing that she has been sexually abused. Censorship is never ok at any cost.”
Peng, 35, alleged in her now-deleted post that Zhang Gaoli had forced her to have sex despite her repeated refusals following a round of tennis three years ago. Zhang, now 75, was a vice-premier from 2013 until his retirement five years later, and a member of the ruling Communist Party’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee.
Simon said he had repeatedly tried to reach Peng, a former top-ranked doubles player who won titles at Wimbledon and the French Open, through “numerous forms of communication” but had not been successful.
“Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely without coercion or intimidation from any source,” he said in the statement. “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.”
Peng’s accusation is the first against a prominent government official since the #MeToo movement briefly emerged in China in 2018.
In response to a question at Wednesday’s daily briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said he had no knowledge of Peng’s situation.
“Do you think the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry is omnipotent?” Zhao said to a reporter. “I suggest you ask the relevant authorities about the relevant question.”