A tennis association is questioning the authenticity of an email attributed to a missing Chinese athlete

The head of the Women’s Tennis Association on Wednesday doubted the veracity of an email attributed to Peng Shuai, the Chinese athlete, who has not been publicly seen since a post on his social media account made allegations of sexual assault against a former Chinese Communist CEO Party.

Association president Steve Simon said in a statement that the email, which was sent to his organization and published via a controlled Twitter feed from China’s state-run English-language satellite news channel, only raised his “concerns about her safety and whereabouts”.

“I find it hard to believe that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believe what is attributed to her,” Simon said, adding that the world needs “independent and verifiable proof that she is safe.”

“I have repeatedly tried to reach out to her through many forms of communication, to no avail,” he said.

The email, which begins by stating that it is from Peng, said she was not missing or unsafe, and that she was resting at home. The email was not independently checked or reviewed by NBC News.

The email also criticized the Women’s Tennis Association for publishing what it called uncontrolled information about Peng without her consent, and said the allegation of sexual assault was false.

The email came as Naomi Osaka joined a growing number of tennis players and officials demanding answers about the 35-year-old star.

Osaka, Japan’s former world No. 1, posted a message Tuesday under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai, which has been widely spread on social media.

“Censorship is never okay at all costs. I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and well, ” Osaka wrote. “I’m shocked by the current situation and I’m sending love and lighting her way.”

Male No. 1 Novak Djokovic said Monday that the situation is “shocking” and that he cannot “imagine how her family feels.”

Osaka, seen here playing in Australia in February, spoke earlier about Black Lives Matter and mental health.Daniel Pockett / Getty Images file

Peng is one of China’s biggest tennis stars of recent years. She is a former world number 1 in doubles who won doubles titles at Wimbledon and the French Open in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

The allegations published earlier this month on Peng’s Weibo account, a Chinese social networking platform similar to Twitter, accused Zhang Gaoli, a former deputy prime minister in his 70s, of sexually assaulting her during an otherwise interim relationship while he was in office. .

The message posted on Weibo on November 2 was quickly deleted, and any online debate was canceled by government censors who blocked a list of related search terms.

Chinese officials did not respond to a request for comment this month when the allegations were posted, and the Foreign Ministry again did not respond on Wednesday. Zhang, who retired in 2018 and is no longer in the public eye, could not be reached for a response.

Asked about Peng during Thursday’s daily conference with news media, Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian replied, “This is not a diplomatic question and I am not aware of the situation you mentioned.”

The allegations against Zhang, who was once one of China’s most powerful officials under President Xi Jinping, are the most high-profile in the country’s own #MeToo movement.

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“We were deeply concerned by the uncertainty surrounding Peng’s immediate security and whereabouts,” Andrea Gaudenzi, the president of the ATP Tour that leads the men’s game, said in a statement Monday. He called for a “full, fair and transparent investigation” into her allegations.

Simon, of the Women’s Tennis Association, told The New York Times on Sunday that “several sources,” including the Chinese Tennis Association, confirmed that Peng is “safe and not under any physical threat”.

He told the Times that he believes Peng is in Beijing but that he cannot confirm it because neither he nor any other official or player he is aware of could have contacted her directly.

Tennis is one of many sports struggling on how to balance China’s vast trade opportunities with concerns about Beijing’s widely criticized record of human rights and censorship. Simon told the Times that the WTA would consider boycotting China unless he sees “appropriate results” in this case.

Czech-American tennis legend Martina Navratilova said in a tweet that this was “a very strong WTA stance – and the right stance!”

“Let’s not shut up,” wrote French player Alizé Cornet, using the #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag. American player Jamie Hampton retweeted Osaka’s statement, adding, “Thank you for stepping on the plate, having a spin and using your platform to point out real problems.”

The post on Peng’s account did not say exactly when the alleged attack took place, and she said she could not provide evidence.

“That afternoon, I was very scared. I didn’t expect it to be like that, ”the poster stated in her Weibo account. “I didn’t agree to have sex with you and kept crying that afternoon.”

She is not the first Chinese celebrity to disappear suddenly from the public.

Movie megastar Fan Bingbing disappeared for nearly a year in 2018 and 2019 after authorities ordered her to pay $ 129 million in unpaid taxes and fines. She appeared after she issued an apology, saying she was “ashamed,” and credited the “big policies” of the Alberta Communist Party, without which “there will be no Fan Bingbing.”

Last year, Chinese tech billionaire Jack Ma disappeared for three months after he made comments that some interpreted as critical of China’s financial regulators.

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