Chinese tennis star’s email doubts raise security concerns


TAIPEI, Taiwan – (AP) – A Chinese professional tennis player has not been seen in public since she accused a former senior government official of sexual assault who allegedly sent an email claiming she was safe and that the allegation was false, a message that only amplified concerns about his safety and requests for information about his well-being and whereabouts.

So far, these appeals have been met with silence.

Chinese authorities have not said anything publicly since the accusation, about two weeks ago, by the double Grand Slam champion, Peng Shuai, of being sexually assaulted by Zhang Gaoli. The first #MeToo case to reach the political realm in China was not reported by national media and the online discussion about it was heavily censored.

Steve Simon, president and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, questioned the authenticity of what Chinese state media said was an email to her in which Peng says she is safe and that the assault allegation is false. It was released on Thursday by CGTN, the international arm of China’s public broadcaster CCTV.

“I find it hard to believe that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is attributed to him,” Simon wrote.

The statement, he added, “only raises my concerns about his safety and whereabouts.”

Simon has called for a full investigation and the WTA has said it is ready to pull tournaments out of the country if it does not get a proper response. Top players including Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic have spoken, and the hashtag WhereisPengShuai is all the rage online.

Serena williams tweeted that she was “devastated and shocked to hear the news” about Peng.

“I hope she’s safe and found as soon as possible,” Williams wrote. “This needs to be investigated and we must not remain silent.”

International Tennis Federation spokeswoman Heather Bowler said Thursday the governing body is in contact with the China Tennis Association and liaising 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 matter,” 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 could provide any additional information or updates.”

I am devastated and shocked to hear the news from my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not remain silent.

China has largely cracked down on a #MeToo movement that flourished briefly in 2018 and is moving forward with the Beijing Winter Olympics in February despite calls to boycott activists and some foreign politicians of China’s record. in human rights.

When asked several times about the case, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian again said on Thursday that he was unaware.

Peng, 35, is a former No. 1 player in the women’s doubles who won titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and Roland Garros in 2014.

She wrote in a lengthy social media post on November 2 that Zhang, 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 refusals. repeated three years ago.

The post was quickly deleted from his verified account on Weibo, one of China’s major social media platforms, but screenshots of the explosive charge quickly spread across the internet in China. She has not appeared in public since then, raising questions about her fate and whether she is being held.

Zhang, who is 75, disappeared from public view after retiring in 2018, as is usual for former senior officials. He is not known to have close ties to the current rulers.

Peng’s charge is the first high-profile sexual assault charge against a powerful politician in China. Past accusations have involved prominent figures in the nonprofit world, academia and the media, but never reached senior Communist Party officials or state-owned companies.

CGTN released the statement on Twitter, which is blocked in China along with many other foreign platforms such as Google and Facebook. He did not post it on Chinese social media, and there was no mention of the alleged email behind the Great Firewall, which separates the Chinese internet from the rest of the world.

Some netizens bypassed controls and posted the news on private social media groups., which records Weibo’s censored posts, said searches for “Peng Shuai” and “Zhang Gaoli” were both in the top 10 most searched topics on Thursday.

Searches of Peng Shuai’s name on the Chinese search engine Sogou only brought up articles about his tennis career. His account on Weibo no longer allows comments and no results appear if people search for his Weibo account.

Peng wrote that Zhang’s wife was guarding the door during the alleged assault, which followed a game of tennis. Her post also said that they had had sex seven years ago and that she had feelings for him afterwards. She also said she knew speaking would be difficult.

“Yes, apart from me, I have kept no evidence, no recordings, no video, only the actual experience of my twisted self. Even if I destroy myself, like throwing an egg against a rock or a flying moth in a flame, I will always speak the truth about us, ”the now deleted post said.

His allegation came just three months before Beijing hosted the Winter Olympics, which were the target of a campaign to boycott several human rights organizations in large part because of China’s crackdown. Uyghur Muslims. The games face a possible diplomatic boycott from the United States and other countries. Rights groups compared the 2022 Beijing Olympics to Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. China has always denied any human rights abuses and claims its actions are part of anti-terrorism programs.

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

The Switzerland-based IOC, which derives 73% of its income from the sale of broadcast rights and 18% from sponsors, has not criticized China and often repeats that it is only a sports company and that its mission is not to act on the policies of a sovereign state.

The WTA can better afford to exert pressure since it is less dependent on China’s revenue than the IOC or the NBA. The basketball league lost around $ 400 million in broadcast rights when China canceled games in the 2019-20 season after then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in favor of protesters in Hong Kong.

The WTA Finals were held in Mexico this month due to the pandemic, with the event scheduled to return in 2022 in Shenzhen, China. The WTA hosts several tournaments in China, and the WTA finals are scheduled there until 2030.

Simon’s statement said Peng had shown incredible courage, but was still concerned for his safety.

“The WTA and the rest of the world need independent, verifiable proof that they are safe,” he wrote. “I have tried several times to reach her via many forms of communication, to no avail.”


Associated Press sports writer Stephen Wade in Tokyo contributed.

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