Chinese state media released an email purportedly from tennis player Peng Shuai retracting a sexual assault claim against a former top government official.
In a statement responding to the email, WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon said the email released by Chinese state-owned television broadcaster CGTN “only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.”
Since Peng made the claim, she has not been seen publicly, leading to concerns for her safety, according to the Associated Press.
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” Simon said in the statement. “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.”
The Associated Press reported that Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Thursday that he was unaware about Peng’s case.
Earlier in November, Peng said in a social media post that Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier and member of the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, forced her to have sex, according to the Associated Press. According to the post, Zhang assaulted her at his home three years ago while his wife guarded the door. Peng wrote in the post they also had sex seven years ago, and that she later developed feelings for him, the AP reported.
The post, which went up on Nov. 2 on Chinese social-media platform Weibo, was deleted minutes after it was posted.
Zhang has been retired since 2018 and has been out of the public eye since then, as is reportedly common for Chinese officials following retirement.
“Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source,” Simon 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.”
On Nov. 14, Simon said in a statement that the WTA commended Peng for her courage and strength, and said the WTA expects the allegations “to be handled properly, meaning the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship.”
As a doubles player, Peng has won at Wimbledon (2013) and the French Open (2014), along with 23 more tour-level titles. She was a semifinalist as a singles player in the 2014 US Open.
According to The New York Times, Peng’s accusation is the latest in the #MeToo movement going on in China that has been met by censorship and legal responses.
Peng’s disappearance has led to many across the tennis community expressing concern for Peng’s safety.
The number of tennis players sharing the #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag is growing quickly today, including from the ATP side.
Heartening to see so many in tennis willing to put concern for Peng Shuai’s well being over cynical business interests. A model for other sports re: China. pic.twitter.com/Z3zVACBZyC
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) November 18, 2021
Naomi Osaka sent out a message on Twitter with the message, “#WhereIsPengShuai,” adding in a note that she hopes Peng and her family “are safe and OK. I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way.”
Novak Djokovic said that he was “shocked” to hear about her disappearance, according to SkySports.
“It’s not much more to say than hope that she will be found, that she’s OK,” Djokovic said. “It’s just terrible. I can imagine just how her family feels that she’s missing.”
Serena Williams also spoke out, saying that she was “devastated and shocked” to hear about Peng, and said she hopes Peng is found safe. She called for an investigation to be held.
I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent. Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time. #whereispengshuai pic.twitter.com/GZG3zLTSC6
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) November 18, 2021