An email purportedly from a Chinese tennis player that a state media outlet posted on Twitter has increased concerns about her safety as the sport’s stars called for information on her well-being and whereabouts.
Chinese officials have said nothing publicly since the accusation about two weeks ago by Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai that she was sexually assaulted by a former top government official.
The first #MeToo case to reach the political realm in China has not been reported by the domestic media and online discussion of it has been highly censored.
Steve Simon, the chairman and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, questioned the authenticity of the email intended for him, in which Peng says she is safe and that the assault allegation is untrue.
It was posted Thursday by CGTN, the international arm of Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” Mr Simon wrote.
The statement “only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts”, he added.
He has demanded a full investigation and the WTA said it is prepared to pull tournaments from the country if it does not get an appropriate response.
Top players including Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic have spoken out, and the hashtag WhereisPengShuai is trending online.
China has largely suppressed a #MeToo movement that flourished briefly in 2018 and is forging ahead with the Beijing Winter Olympics in February despite boycott calls by activists and some overseas politicians over China’s human rights record.eve
Asked repeatedly about the case, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said again on Thursday that he is unaware of it.
The 35-year-old Peng is a former number one-ranked player in women’s doubles who won titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.
She wrote in a lengthy social media post on November 2 that Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier who was a member of the ruling Communist Party’s top leadership committee, had forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals 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, raising questions about her whereabouts and whether she is being detained.
Zhang, who is 75, dropped from public sight after his retirement in 2018, as is usual for former senior officials. He is not known to have any close connections to current leaders.
Peng’s accusation is the first high-profile accusation of sexual assault against a powerful politician in China.
CGTN posted the statement on Twitter, which is blocked in China along with many other foreign platforms such as Google and Facebook. It did not post it on Chinese social media, nor was there any mention of the purported email behind the Great Firewall, which separates the Chinese internet from the rest of the world.
Some internet users have circumvented the controls and posted 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 searched topics on Thursday.
Searches for Peng Shuai’s name on China’s Sogou search engine turn up only articles about her tennis career. Her account on Weibo no longer allows comments, and no results turn up if people search for her Weibo account.
Peng wrote that Zhang’s wife guarded the door during the alleged assault, which followed a game of tennis. Her post also said they had sex seven years ago and she had feelings for him after that. She also said she knew speaking up would be difficult.
“Yes, aside from myself, I kept no evidence, no recordings, no videos, only the real experience of my twisted self. Even if I’m destroying myself, like throwing an egg against a rock, or a moth flying into a flame, I will still speak out the truth about us,” the now-deleted post said.
Mr Simon said that Peng has displayed incredible courage and that he is still concerned about her safety.
“The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe,” he wrote. “I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communications, to no avail.”