The chairman of the Women’s Tennis Association has said a letter to him from Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai published by state media “only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.”
Earlier this month, Peng publicly accused China’s former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her. Zhang, 75, was a member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee before he resigned from public office in 2018.
Since she posted her account on social media, Peng, 35, has not been seen in public and her current whereabouts are unknown.
On Sunday, Steve Simon, the WTA chairman, said the organization felt “deep concern” over Peng’s allegations and demanded they be “investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship.” His calls were echoed by Andrea Gaudenzi, chairman of the ATP, the men’s tennis association.
Several top tennis players also spoke out about the case, including four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka, who said she was “in shock” over the situation.
“Censorship is never ok at any cost,” Osaka wrote on Twitter. “I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and OK.”
Tennis legend Billie Jean King wrote, “hoping that Peng Shuai is found safe and that her accusations are fully investigated.”
In apparent response to the growing clamour for information about her whereabouts, Chinese state media released a letter late on Wednesday purportedly from Peng to Simon, saying the tennis executive’s initial statement had “not been confirmed or verified by myself and it was released without my consent.”
“The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true,” the letter said, according to state broadcaster CGTN. “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.
“If the WTA publishes any more news about me, please verify it with me, and release it with my consent,” the letter continued. “I hope to promote Chinese tennis with you all if I have the chance in the future. I hope Chinese tennis will become better and better.”
The letter, published in the middle of the night Chinese time, only appears to have been posted to CGTN’s Twitter and Facebook pages, both of which are blocked in China. Peng Shuai’s name and accusations remain heavily censored within the Great Firewall, with search engine Baidu only returning news results about years-old tennis matches, while social media site Weibo is still limiting posts about her or Zhang.
In a blistering response to the letter late Wednesday, Simon wrote that “the statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.”
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the e-mail we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” he said, adding she had “displayed incredible courage” in making her initial accusation of sexual assault.
“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,” Simon said. “The voices of women need to be heard and respected, not censored nor dictated to.”
While not a direct challenge to the Chinese government, the WTA’s tough stance on this issue is nonetheless remarkable. Many sports associations and players avoid making any comment that could potentially offend China, for fear of losing access to one of the world’s biggest markets.
In 2019, broadcasts of the NBA were temporarily dropped by Chinese state media after Daryl Morey, then an executive with the Houston Rockets, tweeted support for ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Last month, Boston Celtics games were pulled from the Chinese internet after one of the team’s players, Enes Kanter, accused President Xi Jinping of being a “brutal dictator” and voiced support for Tibetan and Uyghur movements.
In an interview with the New York Times this week, Simon said he “can’t speak to the decisions that the NBA made.”
“They had, obviously, different issues,” he said. “But in this situation, the WTA issue is about potential sexual assault of one of our players. That is something that simply can’t be compromised.”
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