Concerns are mounting over the safety of the Chinese tennis star after raising allegations of sexual abuse

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A Chinese professional tennis player who has not been seen in public since she accused a former government official of sexual abuse has sent an e-mail claiming that she was safe and that the claim was false, a message that only heightened concerns about her safety and information requirements. about her well-being and whereabouts.

So far, those conversations have been met with silence.

Chinese officials have not said anything publicly since the indictment of Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai about two weeks ago that she was sexually abused. The first #MeToo case that reached the political sphere in China has not been reported by domestic media and online discussions if it has been heavily censored.

Steve Simon, president and president of the Women’s Tennis Association, questioned the authenticity of what Chinese state media said was an email intended for him in which Peng says she is safe and that the assault charge is untrue. It was published on Thursday by CGTN, the international branch of the Chinese state television company CCTV.

“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believe what is attributed to her,” Simon wrote.

The statement, he added, “only raises my concerns about her safety and where she is.”

Simon has demanded a full investigation and the WTA said they are prepared to pull tournaments out of the country if they do not receive an appropriate response. Top players including Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic have spoken out, and the hashtag WhereisPengShuai is an online trend.

The International Tennis Federation’s spokeswoman, Heather Bowler, said on Thursday that the governing body is in contact with the Chinese Tennis Federation and is in contact with the WTA and the International Olympic Committee.

“Player safety is always our top priority and we support a full and transparent investigation into this issue,” Bowler wrote in an email to the Associated Press. “Although we have not spoken to the player, we are in contact with the National Tennis Association of China (CTA) in case they can provide further information or updates.”

China has largely suppressed a #MeToo movement that flourished briefly in 2018 and will continue with the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, despite calls from activists and some foreign politicians for China’s human rights.

Asked repeatedly about the case, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said again on Thursday that he was not aware of it.

Posts deleted from Weibo

The 35-year-old Peng is a former number 1 ranked doubles player who won titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.

She wrote in a long post on social media on November 2 that Zhang Gaoli, a former deputy prime minister who was a member of the ruling Communist Party’s top leadership committee, had forced her to have sex despite repeated rejections three years ago.

The post was quickly deleted from her verified account on Weibo, a leading Chinese social media platform, but screenshots of the explosive accusation quickly spread across China’s internet. She has not appeared in public since then and asked questions about her whereabouts and whether she is in custody.

Peng, right, shakes hands after a match with Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard in 2017. The Chinese tennis star accused a former government official of sexual abuse. (AFP via Getty Images)

Zhang, who is 75 years old, left the public after his retirement in 2018, which is common for former senior officials. He is not known for having any close ties to current leaders.

Peng’s accusation is the first high-profile allegation of sexual abuse of a powerful politician in China. Earlier accusations concerned prominent figures in the non-profit world, academia and the media, but never reached the Communist Party’s top officials or state-owned enterprises.

News circulates in private social media groups

CGTN posted the statement on Twitter, which is blocked in China along with many other foreign platforms such as Google and Facebook. It was not published on Chinese social media, nor was there any mention of the alleged email behind the Great Firewall, which separates the Chinese Internet from the rest of the world.

Some Internet users have circumvented the controls and written about the news in private social media groups. Freeweibo.com, which records censored posts from Weibo, said searches for “Peng Shuai” and “Zhang Gaoli” were both among the top 10 most searched topics on Thursday.

Searches for Peng Shuai’s name on China’s search engine Sogou only show articles about her tennis career. Her account on Weibo no longer allows comments, and no results appear if people search for her Weibo account.

Peng wrote that Zhang’s wife guarded the door during the alleged assault, which followed a round of tennis. Her post also said that they had sex seven years ago and that she had feelings for him after that. She also said she knew it would be difficult to talk.

“Yes, apart from myself, I kept no evidence, no recordings, no videos, just the real experience of my distorted self. Even if I destroy myself, like throwing an egg at a rock, or a moth flying into a flame, I will still tell the truth about us “, it said in the now deleted post.

The IOC is speaking ahead of the Beijing Olympics

Her accusation came just three months before Beijing is hosting the Winter Olympics, which have been the target of a boycott campaign by several human rights organizations, largely due to China’s repression of Uighur Muslims. The Games are facing a possible diplomatic boycott of the United States and other countries. Rights groups have likened Beijing’s 2022 Olympics to Hitler’s Olympics in Berlin in 1936. China has consistently denied any human rights abuses, saying its actions are part of a counter-terrorism program.

Peng has played in three Olympics. The IOC said on Thursday in a statement that “we have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe.”

The allegations come before Beijing hosting the Winter Olympics, which have been the target of repeated calls for boycotts. (Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

The Swiss-based IOC, which receives 73 percent of its revenue from the sale of broadcasting rights and a further 18 percent from sponsors, has not criticized China and often reiterates that it is just a sports deal and has no mandate to act under the policies of a sovereign state.

The WTA can better afford to put pressure because it is less dependent on income from China than the IOC or the NBA. The basketball league lost an estimated $ 400 million in broadcasting rights when China shut down its games during the 2019-2020 season after then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of protesters in Hong Kong.

Simon’s statement said Peng had shown incredible courage, but that he was still concerned about her safety.

“The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable evidence that she is safe,” he wrote. “I have repeatedly tried to reach her through many different forms of communication, without success.”