Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) chairman and CEO Steve Simon on Wednesday expressed deep skepticism about a purported email allegedly from missing Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai. Simon said he had a “very hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email.”
“The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” Simon wrote in his statement on Wednesday.
“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.
“Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source. Her allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship,” he demanded.
Peng, once a top-ranked women’s tennis player worldwide and a major celebrity in China, wrote a social media post on the state-controlled Weibo social media platform on November 2 accusing former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her a decade ago. Peng was about 25 at the time, while Zhang is 40 years her senior.
In the post, Peng said she expected to face retribution for daring to confront Zhang, the highest-ranking Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official to be accused of sexual assault.
“Even if it’s just striking a stone with a pebble, or a moth attacking a flame and courting self destruction, I will tell the truth about you,” she wrote.
Peng’s post was almost immediately deleted by Chinese censors, Internet searches for her name were blocked, and she vanished without a trace.
Simon issued a statement on behalf of the WTA on Monday calling for an investigation of her claims and demanding proof of her well-being. A growing number of star tennis players expressed concern for her safety and joined a social media hashtag called #WhereIsPengShuai.
On Wednesday, the state-run China Global Television Network (CGTN) published a suspiciously stilted message billed as an email from Peng to Simon, assuring the WTA chairman and tennis fans around the world that she is fine, all is well, and she never accused any senior CCP officials of assaulting her.
Simon questioned the veracity of this email in his statement on Wednesday, as did most others concerned for Peng’s safety. Criticism of the repressive Chinese government is growing louder as the Beijing Winter Olympics approach.
“The brazen efforts to silence Peng Shuai seem at odds with China’s focus on making the Beijing Olympics a success,” Lowy Institute public opinion director Natasha Kassam told the New York Times on Wednesday.
On the other hand, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) pronounced itself satisfied with the dubious email from Peng. “We have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe,” the IOC said in a statement on Thursday quoted by the Associated Press (AP).
International Tennis Federation spokeswoman Heather Bowler told the AP on Thursday her organization is in touch with the Chinese Tennis Association, but like the WTA, has not been able to speak directly to Peng.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry refused to answer questions about Peng for the second time this week on Thursday.
“This is not a foreign affairs matter, and I am not aware of the relevant situation you mentioned,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian responded when asked about Peng.
Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) wrote a letter to President Joe Biden on Wednesday asking the administration to raise the “issue of Peng’s safety and whereabouts” with Chinese officials – and “suspend any high-level dialogues with China until China responds satisfactorily.”
“I also urge you to warn the Chinese authorities that China’s silencing and abusing Peng Shuai, if not handled properly, will have a negative impact on China hosting the Winter Olympics of 2022 and will only exacerbate the movement to boycott the games,” Banks told Biden.