The head of the Women’s Tennis Association cast doubt Wednesday on the veracity of an email attributed to Peng Shuai, the Chinese athlete who hasn’t been seen publicly since a post on her social media account made allegations of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese Communist Party.
Association chairman Steve Simon said in a statement that the email, which was sent to his organization and published by a verified Twitter feed of China’s state-owned English-language satellite news channel, only raised his “concerns about 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,” Simon said, adding that the world needs “independent and verifiable proof that she is safe.”
“I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail,” he said.
The email, which begins by stating it is from Peng, said that she was not missing or unsafe, and that she was at home resting. The email has not been independently verified or reviewed by NBC News.
The email also criticized the Women’s Tennis Association for releasing what it called unverified information about Peng without her consent, and said the allegation of sexual assault was untrue.
The email surfaced as Naomi Osaka joined a growing number of tennis players and officials demanding answers about the 35-year-old star.
Osaka, the Japanese former world No. 1, posted a message Tuesday under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai, which has been widely circulated on social media.
“Censorship is never OK at any cost. I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and OK,” Osaka wrote. “I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way.”
Men’s No. 1 Novak Djokovic said Monday that the situation was “shocking” and that he couldn’t “imagine just how her family feels.”
Peng is one of China’s biggest tennis stars of recent years. She is a former world No. 1 in doubles who won doubles titles at Wimbledon and the French Open in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
The allegations published earlier this month on Peng’s Weibo account, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter, accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier in his 70s, of sexually assaulting her during an otherwise on-off relationship while he was in office.
The message posted on Weibo on Nov. 2 was quickly deleted, and any online debate was quashed by government censors who blocked a list of related search terms.
Chinese officials didn’t respond to a request for comment this month when the allegations were posted, and the Foreign Ministry again didn’t reply Wednesday. Zhang, who retired in 2018 and is no longer in the public eye, couldn’t be reached for a response.
When asked about Peng during Thursday's daily briefing with news media, Beijing's foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian replied: “This is not a diplomatic question and I am not aware of the situation you mentioned.”
The allegations against Zhang, who was once one of China’s most powerful officials under President Xi Jinping, are the most high-profile in the country’s own #MeToo movement.
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“We have been deeply concerned by the uncertainty surrounding the immediate safety and whereabouts” of Peng, Andrea Gaudenzi, the chairman of the ATP Tour, which runs the men’s game, said in a statement Monday. He called for a “full, fair and transparent investigation” into her allegations.
Simon, of the Women’s Tennis Association, told The New York Times on Sunday that “several sources,” including the Chinese Tennis Association, confirmed that Peng is “safe and not under any physical threat."
He told the Times that he believes Peng is in Beijing but that he can’t confirm it because neither he nor any other official or player he is aware of has been able to contact her directly.
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Tennis is one of many sports grappling with how to balance China's vast commercial opportunities with concerns about Beijing’s widely criticized record on human rights and censorship. Simon told the Times that the WTA would consider boycotting China unless he saw “appropriate results” in this case.
Czech American tennis legend Martina Navratilova said in a tweet that this was “a very strong stance by WTA — and the correct stance!”
“Let’s not remain silent,” wrote French player Alizé Cornet, using the #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag. U.S. player Jamie Hampton retweeted Osaka’s statement, adding, “Thank you for stepping up to the plate, having a spine, and using your platform to draw attention to real issues.”
The post on Peng's account didn’t say exactly when the alleged assault took place, and she said she was unable to provide evidence.
“That afternoon, I was very afraid. I didn’t expect it to be like this,” the post on her Weibo account stated. “I didn’t agree to have sex with you and kept crying that afternoon.”
She isn’t the first Chinese celebrity to have vanished suddenly from the public eye.
Movie megastar Fan Bingbing disappeared for almost a year in 2018 and 2019 after authorities ordered her to pay $129 million in unpaid taxes and fines. She emerged after she issued an apology, saying she was “ashamed,” and credited the “great policies” of the Communist Party, without which “there would be no Fan Bingbing.”
Last year, Chinese tech billionaire Jack Ma disappeared for three months after he made comments that some interpreted as critical of China’s financial regulators.