Email fuels doubts over fate of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai

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Originally published by Nikkei Asia on 18 November, 2021

TOKYO — The head of the global governing body for women’s tennis has raised fresh concerns about the well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, after state media posted an email allegedly from the former Wimbledon doubles champion saying she was safe.

The sender identifying as Peng said statements released by the Women’s Tennis Association raising worries about her whereabouts were not verified or approved by her.

“I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine,” the email said.

Peng, 35, had not been heard from since Nov. 2, when she wrote on Chinese social media platform Weibo that she and Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, 75, had an on-and-off extramarital relationship with his wife’s knowledge several years ago, during which he coerced her into having sex.

Thursday’s email added that the allegations of sexual assault were “not true.”

The WTA called for “independent and verifiable proof” of Peng’s safety.

“The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” CEO Steve Simon said in a statement on the WTA’s website, adding that repeated attempts to reach her had failed. “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believe what is being attributed to her.”

In an earlier statement, WTA called for the allegations made by Peng to be “investigated, not condoned or ignored,” marking a departure from sports bodies such as the International Olympic Committee and U.S. National Basketball Association that have tiptoed around Beijing.

A question on Peng was asked at a regular Chinese foreign ministry press conference on Nov. 3, but the spokesperson responded: “I haven’t heard of this. This also isn’t a matter of foreign affairs. Next question.” The clip was shown on a Taiwanese news program.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and China’s State Council did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.

As the private lives of Chinese officials are treated with sensitivity, Peng’s original post was deleted roughly half an hour after it was published.

Peng said in the Nov. 2 post that she could not provide evidence to back her allegations. “Like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you,” she wrote.

Observers say that a screenshot of the email tweeted by CGTN, the English-version of China’s state broadcaster, and not on China’s internet should not be taken at face value.

“The Chinese government has a long history of arbitrarily detaining people involved in controversial cases, controlling their ability to speak freely, and making them give forced statements,” said William Nee, Chinese Human Rights Defenders‘ Research and Advocacy director.

The sport’s top stars have added their voices to the search for Peng. Novak Djokovic said in a press conference that Peng’s disappearance was “shocking” and “terrible,” and retired American champion Chris Evert said the accusations were “very disturbing.”

On Thursday, Nikkei Asia found censoring activity on Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka’s Weibo profile, with comments disabled on her most recent post, which was unrelated to Peng. That comes after Osaka on Wednesday tweeted her 1.1 million followers a message with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai, saying: “Censorship is never ok at any cost.”

The missing athlete adds fuel to concerns about human rights abuses in China that have overshadowed the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, which begin in February. While the Chinese government has pursued sexual assault cases, it has painted them as products of celebrity and tech company culture instead of a wider social problem.

E-commerce giant Alibaba in August suspended several employees after a female staffer accused her boss and a client of sexual assault. A few days later, Chinese-Canadian singer Kris Wu, 31, was arrested after underaged students said he induced them into intercourse.

China’s government has detained some women who have been vocal in the country’s #MeToo movement. Earlier this year, social media accounts belonging to feminists were shut down.

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