Tennis Association Has a ‘Hard Time’ Believing Email from Missing Chinese Tennis Star

In an email published by Chinese state media, Peng Shuai purportedly walked back allegations of sexual assault against a former Communist Party leader.
November 18, 2021, 4:06am
Peng Shuai tennis disappearance
Mentions of Peng Shuai are being censored on Chinese social media. Photo: Emmanuel Wong / Getty Images

The head of the Women’s Tennis Association has cast doubt over what Chinese state media said was an email written by a tennis star who has disappeared from the public eye after accusing a former Communist Party leader of sexual assault. 

The state-run English news outlet CGTN on Thursday published an email attributed to Peng Shuai, a tennis star who alleged she was coerced into sex by former vice premier Zhang Gaoli in a Nov. 2 post on Chinese social media. The post and her verified account on the microblogging site Weibo were put under a blanket censorship, and she had not been heard from since.

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According to CGTN, Peng said the allegation of sexual assault was “not true.” “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe,” said the email, which was published by the state news outlet early Thursday. “I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine… If the WTA publishes any more news about me, please verify it with me, and release it with my consent.”

Steve Simon, the chairman and chief executive of the WTA, previously called on a full investigation of her claims of sexual assault “without censorship.” He said in a subsequent statement that the state media report only raised his concerns about Peng’s safety. 

“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. “I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail. Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source.”

Personal lives of senior officials are considered highly sensitive by the Chinese leadership. Peng’s allegations marked the first time a senior member of the ruling Communist Party was accused of sexual misconduct since the start of a budding #MeToo movement in the country.

CGTN did not say how it obtained the email. The screenshot it posted after 1:30 a.m. Beijing time showed a text cursor in the middle of the second sentence. On Thursday, the email could not be found on Chinese social media, where mentions of Peng were still being actively censored. 

The WTA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Tennis stars including Naomi Osaka and Billie Jean King have over the past week pleaded for Peng’s safety and called for an investigation into her allegations by posting with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai. 

Both WTA and ATP, the governing body of men’s tennis, have called for a full investigation into Peng’s allegations.