Women’s Tennis Association Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said Wednesday that he had a hard time believing an email supposedly written by missing Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai and released by Chinese state media was legitimate.
Peng, 35, disappeared after publishing a lengthy social media post in which she claimed that Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier and member of the Chinese Communist Party’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee, had coerced her into sex despite repeated refusals following a round of tennis three years ago.
FILE: China’s Shuai Peng plays a shot against Romania’s Sorana Cirstea during their first round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium, in Paris, France. Tuesday, May 30, 2017. (AP)
The post disappeared from her verified Weibo account, and China’s state-controlled media appears to have suppressed any reporting on the case. Peng also disappeared from the public since making the post.
CGTN, a China state-affiliated media company, released an email Wednesday morning supposedly written by Peng. The email appeared to walk back Peng’s sexual misconduct claims and insisted that she was perfectly safe.
“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,” the email said.
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Simon, who has called for an investigation into Peng’s allegations, said he had a “hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email.”
FILE: China’s Shuai Peng serves the ball to France’s Caroline Garcia during their second round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium, Thursday, May 31, 2018, in Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)
“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,” Simon said in a statement.
Simon said Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, “without coercion or intimidation from any source.”
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Peng’s accusation was the first against a prominent government official since the #MeToo movement took hold in China in 2018 before being largely tamped down by authorities the same year.
When asked during a daily briefing on Monday about Peng’s allegation, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said: “I have not heard of the matter, and it is not a diplomatic question.”
Shuai Peng of China plays a backhand during her Women’s Doubles first round match with partner Shuai Zhang of China against Veronika Kudermetova of Russia and Alison Riske of the United States on day four of the 2020 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 23, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
In response to another question at Wednesday’s daily briefing, Zhao said he had no knowledge of Peng’s situation.
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“Do you think the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry is omnipotent?” Zhao asked a reporter. “I suggest you ask the relevant authorities about the relevant question.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.