Concerns continue to grow for the safety of Peng Shuai, who has not been seen since making sexual assault allegations against a former senior Chinese Communist Party, despite claims by Chinese state media that the tennis player is resting at home.
If, at the end of the day, we don’t see the appropriate results from this, we would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China, if that’s what it came to... If anyone wants to question our fortitude behind a statement like that, they can certainly try to. We’re at a crossroads with our relationship with China and operating our business over there. Steve Simon, WTA Chairman and CEO
On Thursday, Chinese state broadcaster CGTN posted a letter attributed to Peng on its Twitter account.
“I am not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine,” the letter said, adding that her purported allegation of sexual assault against former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli ‘is not true’.
Outlets re-published what is claimed to be an email from Peng to WTA President and CEO Steve Simon.
Peng alleged earlier this month in a Weibo post, later deleted, that she had been coerced into a sexual relationship with Zhang.
The 35-year-old has not been seen or heard from since, and there is growing concern for her welfare amid fears that Peng is being censored and punished for speaking out against a senior Chinese Communist Party official.
“The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” said Simon in a WTA statement. “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her.
“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.
“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.
“The voices of women need to be heard and respected, not censored nor dictated to.”
The email claimed to be from Peng to Simon, a screenshot of which state-run media outlets shared, begins ‘Hello everyone this in Peng Shuai’ and reads:
The communication has been widely dismissed as not credible since a cursor, usually only present on the screen when someone is typing, is also apparently visible.
Simon told TIME that the Chinese Tennis Association had advised him that Peng was at home in China but he had been unable to communicate with her.
There are fears that she could be under house arrest in Tianjin, the port city where she lives, as a punishment for challenging the regime, according to a report in the London Telegraph.
Following the decision by the WTA to issue a statement demanding China respond to Peng’s allegations on Sunday, a growing number of prominent athletes have spoken out on the issue.
“Censorship is never OK at any cost, I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and OK. I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way,” Naomi Osaka said as part of a Twitter statement on Tuesday, alongside the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
Tennis legend and 39 time Grand Slam championship-winner Billie Jean King said on Twitter: “Hoping that Peng Shuai is found safe and that her accusations are fully investigated.”
Former World No 1 Chris Evert posted: “These accusations are very disturbing. I’ve known Peng since she was 14; we should all be concerned; this is serious; where is she? Is she safe? Any information would be appreciated.”
Serena Williams wrote: “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“
Meanwhile, the WTA has reinforced its threat to withdraw all its tournaments from China if Peng is not found soon, calling the issue ‘bigger than business’ as the sporting world condemns the country’s silence on her whereabouts.
Due to host the Winter Olympics and Paralympics early next year, critics of the regime say China’s record on human rights makes it an unfit Olympic host, and the Peng case is likely to give rise to more criticism over how China handles dissent.
“Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature,” the IOC told insidethegames when asked about Peng. “This explains why the IOC will not comment any further at this stage.”
US President Joe Biden said on Friday that the US government is open to a diplomatic boycott of the Games because of China’s alleged human rights abuses.
“That is something we’re considering,” he said.
The WTA is set to stage 10 tournaments in China in 2022.
“Should we find that what we are asking for cannot happen, or will not happen, we are prepared to no longer do business within the region and move forward,” Simon told TIME at the WTA Finals in Mexico.
Simon issued a similar warning in The New York Times: “If, at the end of the day, we don’t see the appropriate results from this, we would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China, if that’s what it came to,” he said.
“If anyone wants to question our fortitude behind a statement like that, they can certainly try to. We’re at a crossroads with our relationship with China and operating our business over there.
“It’s something that’s actually very sad because we have some amazing relationships over there, and developed some unbelievable programs that have developed players that want to be the next Li Na or the next Peng Shuai.”
The WTA is the first international sport to threaten China with sanctions over human rights concerns, and it could cost the organisation hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue in one of the sport’s largest markets.
China has repeatedly blocked other leagues or teams, including the NBA, from broadcasting in the country after players raised concerns about its actions in Hong Kong or Xinjiang.
“When you look at this, they’re too many times in our world today when we get into issues like this that we let business, politics, money, dictate what’s right and what’s wrong,” Simon told CNN.
“It’s very important that the voices of women need to be respected, not censored, and not dictated to.”
Peng’s explosive #MeToo allegations against former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli continue to reverberate across China, despite the authorities’ attempts to wipe out mention of such a politically sensitive scandal.
Zhang, 75, served on the ruling Communist Party’s 7 person Politiburo Standing Committee, the country’s supreme leadership body, from 2012 to 2017 during Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s first term in power, and retired as vice premier in 2018.
In her post, which reads as an open letter to Zhang, the 35-year-old alludes to an abusive relationship over 10 years.
“Why did you have to come back to me, took me to your home to force me to have sex with you?” she wrote.
Peng admitted she did not have evidence to prove her allegations, and claimed Zhang was always worried that she would record things.
“I couldn’t describe how disgusted I was, and how many times I asked myself am I still a human? I feel like a walking corpse,” wrote Peng.
“That afternoon, I was very afraid. I didn’t expect it to be like this,” she wrote. “I didn’t agree to have sex with you and kept crying that afternoon.”
Peng went silent after posting the 1,500-character essay to her verified account on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.
Her allegation of sexual assault was made on 2 November via the social media network Weibo in a post that was only live for about 20 minutes, but Peng’s social media presence has since disappeared, and the word “wangqiu”, Chinese for tennis, has also been censored on the network.