The head of the Women’s Tennis Association on Wednesday expressed doubt about an email it received, also published by Chinese state media, in which tennis player Peng Shuai reportedly denied her allegations of sexual assault.
Peng, one of China’s biggest sports stars, said on social media this month that former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli forced her to have sex and that they later had a consensual relationship.
Her poster was removed about half an hour later and she has since not been seen in public or made a statement, alerting the global tennis community.
On Twitter on Wednesday, Chinese state media CGTN released what it said was that Peng sent an email to WTA President Steve Simon, who is also its CEO, in which she said the allegation of assault is false. Twitter is blocked in China.
“The statement released today by Chinese state media outlets about Peng Shuai only arouses my concerns about her safety and whereabouts,” Simon said in a written statement.
“I find it hard to believe that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believe what is attributed to her.”
Beijing has yet to comment on Peng’s initial allegation and discussion on the issue has been blocked on China’s highly censored internet.
The statement comes as China prepares to host the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February amid calls from global rights groups and others for a boycott over its human rights.
“My answer is very simple. This is not a foreign affairs issue, and I am not aware of the situation you mentioned, ”Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Thursday, when asked about Peng’s whereabouts and whether China cares that her case will affect its image before the Olympics.
The Chinese Tennis Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The e-mail that CGTN attributes to Peng says: “I am not missing, nor am I insecure. I just rested at home and everything is fine. ”
Apart from CGTN, the English-language arm of state broadcaster CCTV, no other Chinese media on Thursday morning in Asia reported the letter.
A representative of Peng did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Florida-based WTA and its men’s counterpart, the London-based Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), have previously called on China to investigate Peng’s allegations.
Current and former players, from multi-size winners Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic to Billie Jean King, have expressed support and concern for Peng, and many top female players are going to social media with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
“The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe,” Simon wrote. “I have repeatedly tried to reach her through many forms of communication, to no avail.”
Peng, 35, was the first Chinese player to top the world rankings when she was double number one in 2014. She won double titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.
Zhang, now 75, was deputy prime minister between 2013 and 2018 and served on the Politburo’s Standing Committee between 2012 and 2017.
“I hope @WTA will continue to show what we represent as players,” Jessica Pegula, America’s top 20 player, said on Twitter. “We are extremely fortunate to be able to do what we do, but I hope that more people, not just tennis players, will shed light on this deeply troubled situation.”