Fears are growing over the welfare of tennis player Peng Shuai after Chinese state media published a letter attributed to her and social media posts about her sexual assault allegations were reportedly blocked.
Peng, a former world doubles number one, has not been heard from since making allegations of sexual assault against China’s former vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, in a post on the social media platform Weibo two weeks ago.
The post was quickly removed and there has been mounting concern for Peng, with Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic among those to raise the situation.
Several Chinese netizens said on Wednesday that they were unable to share screenshots of Peng’s original post, and that internet searches for her name did not yield any information about the allegations or ensuing discussions. Beijing is known to censor the internet and stop controversial material circulating.
Chinese state-run CGTV reported on Wednesday that Ms Peng had sent an email to the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) chairperson and chief executive Steve Simon. CGTV also shared a screenshot of the email on Twitter.
The email, that CGTV claimed was written by Ms Peng, said the allegations of sexual assault were false. “I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me,” the email said.
Yet doubts over the authenticity of the email have emerged.
Mr Simon of the WTA has said that he has repeatedly been trying to contact Ms Peng, but to no avail.
“The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” he said.
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” he added.
Mr Simon emphasised that while Ms Peng “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.”
“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 35-year-old tennis star had posted her #MeToo story on Weibo on 2 November. She had accused former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her into having sex. Mr Zhang, 75, has not commented on the allegations so far.
William Nee of the advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Defenders asked the Chinese government to prove that Ms Peng has not been detained.
“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,” Mr Nee said in a statement.
China has also detained vocal women espousing the country’s growing #MeToo movement.
Reporters Without Borders pointed out that Chinese independent journalist Huang Xueqin, a #MeToo movement activist in China, was arrested on 19 September this year in the southern city of Guangzhou under suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power.”
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