Worries over the whereabouts and safety of two-time Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai have intensified after the head of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) raised doubts over the validity of a statement attributed to her, in which she supposedly issued assurances over her safety.
Peng has not been seen since November 2, when she made an allegation of sexual assault against China's former vice premier Zhang Gaoli.
The 35-year-old, a former top 20 player in women's singles, made the allegation on Chinese social media site Weibo, but it was quickly taken down.
Subsequent posts and reactions – including keywords such as “tennis” – were blocked, while numerous references to Peng were also removed from the Chinese internet.
The WTA said earlier this week that it had received assurances over Peng's safety in the form of an email written by the 2013 Wimbledon champion.
However, Steve Simon, the chairman of the WTA, has now cast doubt over the authenticity of the email, saying in a statement: "The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.
"I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her. Peng Shuai 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. I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail.
"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 voices of women need to be heard and respected, not censored nor dictated to.”
Chinese state-affiliated media outlet CGTN released on Twitter what it said was an email sent by Peng to Simon, which said: "I'm not missing, nor am I unsafe. I've just been resting at home and everything is fine." Twitter is blocked in China.
The email also said the original allegation Peng made against Zhang was untrue.
At the time of writing, CGTN, the English-language arm of state broadcaster CCTV, was the only broadcaster in China to have reported on the email.
In the original Weibo post from earlier this month, Peng, 35, claimed she had an on-off extra-martial affair with Zhang, 75, for several years before Zhang cut ties with her as he rose through the ranks in China's communist party.
Several years later, Peng claims, Zhang invited her to his and his wife's house to play tennis, which is when Peng alleges she was sexually assaulted by Zhang.
“I never consented that afternoon, crying all the time,” she wrote.
Neither Zhang nor the Chinese government have responded to the allegation.
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