Concerns are mounting over the safety of a Chinese tennis star following allegations of sexual assault

A Chinese professional tennis player not seen publicly since she accused a former top government official of sexual assault reportedly sent an email claiming she was safe and that the accusation was false, a message that only reinforced concerns about her safety and demands for information about her. well-being and residence.

So far, those calls have been met with silence.

Chinese officials have said nothing publicly since the accusation about two weeks ago of Grand Slam double champion Peng Shuai that she was sexually assaulted. The first case #MeToo, which reached the political sphere in China, was not reported by the domestic media and online discussion about it was highly censored.

Steve Simon, the president and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, questioned the authenticity of what Chinese state media said was an email addressed to him in which Peng says she is safe and that the charge is false. It was posted on Thursday by CGTN, the international arm of Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.

“I find it hard to believe that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believe what is attributed to her,” Simon wrote.

The statement, he added, “only raises my concerns about her safety and whereabouts.”

Simon has demanded a full investigation, and the WTA has said it is ready to pull tournaments out of the country if it does not receive an appropriate response. Top players including Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic spoke out, and the hashtag WhereisPengShuai stores online.

International Tennis Federation spokeswoman Heather Bowler said Thursday that the board is in contact with the Chinese Tennis Association and is in contact with the WTA and 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. “Although we have not spoken to the player, we are contacting the national tennis association in China (CTA) in case they could provide further information or updates.”

China has largely suppressed the #MeToo movement, which prospered briefly in 2018 and is moving forward with the Beijing Winter Olympics in February despite boycotts by activists and some foreign politicians over China’s human rights.

Asked several times about the case, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said again on Thursday that he did not know about it.

Post removed from Weibo

The 35-year-old Peng is a former 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 long post on social media on November 2 that Zhang Gaoli, a former deputy prime minister who was a member of the ruling Communist Party’s main steering committee, forced her to have sex despite repeated denials three years ago.

The post was quickly removed from her verified account on Weibo, a major Chinese social media platform, but screenshots of the explosive allegation quickly spread via China’s internet. She has not appeared in public since then, raising questions about her whereabouts and whether she is under arrest.

Peng, rightly, shakes hands after a match with Canadian Eugenie Bouchard in 2017. The Chinese tennis star has made allegations of sexual assault against a former senior government official. (AFP for Getty Images)

Zhang, who is 75 years old, has disappeared from public view after his retirement in 2018, as usual for former senior officials. He cannot have any close ties to current leaders.

Peng’s indictment is the first high-profile allegation of sexual assault against a powerful politician in China. Previous accusations have affected prominent figures in the nonprofit world, academia and media, but have never reached the top officials or state-owned enterprises of the Communist Party.

News is circulating on private social media

CGTN published the statement on Twitter, which is blocked in China along with many other foreign platforms such as Google and Facebook. It did not post it on Chinese social media, nor was there a mention of the alleged email behind the Great Firewall that separates the Chinese internet from the rest of the world.

Some netizens avoided the checks and posted about the news on private social media., which records Weibo’s censored posts, said searches on “Peng Shuai” and “Zhang Gaoli” were both among the top 10 searched topics on Thursday.

Searches for Peng Shuai’s name in the Chinese search engine Sogou show only articles about her tennis career. Her account at Weibo no longer allows comments, and no results appear if people search for her Weibo account.

Peng wrote that Zhang’s wife guarded the door during the alleged attack, which followed a round of tennis. Her post also said they had sex seven years ago and she had feelings for him after that. She also said she knows that speaking out loud will be difficult.

“Yes, except for myself, I kept no proofs, no recordings, no videos, just the real experience of my twisted self. Even if I destroy myself, like throwing an egg against a rock, or a moth flying into a flame, I will still speak the truth about us, “said the now deleted post.

IOC remarks before Beijing Olympics

Her accusation came just three months before Beijing hosted the Winter Olympics, which was the target of a boycott campaign by many human rights organizations largely due to China’s repression of Uyghur Muslims. The games face a possible diplomatic boycott of the United States and other countries. Rights groups compared the 2022 Beijing Olympics to Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. China has consistently denied any human rights and says its actions are part of counterterrorism programs.

Peng has played in three Olympics. The IOC said Thursday in a statement that “we have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe.”

The allegations come before Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics, which have been the target of repeated calls for a boycott. (Frederic J. Brown / AFP for Getty Images)

The Switzerland-based IOC, which receives 73 percent of its revenue from selling broadcasting rights and an additional 18 percent from sponsors, has not criticized China, and often reiterates that it is only a sports business and has no competence to act in accordance with policies. sovereign state.

The WTA can better provide pressure because it is less dependent on China’s revenue than the IOC or the NBA. The basketball league lost about $ 400 million in broadcast rights when China shut down its games in the 2019-2020 season after then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey encrypted to support protesters in Hong Kong.

Simon’s statement said Peng had shown incredible courage, but that he still cared 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 through many forms of communication, to no avail.”

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