Recent assurances from Chinese state media that tennis star Peng Shuai is safe and well should be taken with a pinch of salt, a U.S.-based rights group and the head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) have said.
Peng has been incommunicado since she accused a former ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader of pressuring her into a sexual relationship in a Nov. 2 social media post, raising concerns about her personal safety among Chinese feminist campaigners and international sports associations.
An email allegedly penned by Peng was broadcast by CCP mouthpiece CGTN on Nov. 17, saying Peng’s allegations were “not true,” and that she isn’t “missing.”
“I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe, I’ve been resting at home and everything is fine,” CGTN quoted the email as saying.
CGTN said the e-mail had been sent by Peng to Steve Simon, CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) after he expressed concerns about Peng’s safety and called for an investigation into her allegation that former vice premier Wang Gaoli had pressured her into a sexual relationship.
But the U.S.-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, which compiles and translates reports from rights organizations in China, said the claim was dubious.
“Peng Shuai’s latest statement – released through state media – should not be taken at face value,” CHRD research and advocacy coordinator William Nee said in a statement on the group’s website.
“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,” Nee said.
“Until Peng Shuai is free, the burden of proof should be on the Chinese government to prove she is not detained.”
He called on the WTA, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and other sporting figures, who have included former women’s No. 1 players Naomi Osaka and Chris Evert, to keep on speaking out about Peng.
“Peng Shuai has made important allegations of sexual misconduct and misuse of power, and these claims should not be censored, but should prompt an impartial and fair investigation,” Nee said.
Osaka said in a Nov. 16 post on Twitter: “Censorship is never OK at any cost, I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and OK. I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way. #whereispengshuai.”
The WTA’s Simon agreed, saying he had repeatedly tried and failed to reach Peng directly.
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believe what is being attributed to her,” Simon said. “The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe.”
“The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” he said. “Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source.”
In a Nov. 2 post to Chinese social media, Peng said former vice premier Zhang Gaoli had pressured her into sex when she was 19, and later pursued her to restart the extramarital affair after he finished his 10-year stint serving on the CCP’s Politburo standing committee, the most powerful decision-making body in the Chinese government.
Peng said she had also felt pressured into restarting the affair, before describing some positive feelings towards Zhang, and later detailing humiliation, mostly from Zhang’s wife, and a sense of social isolation caused by being made to keep the affair secret.
While screenshots of her lengthy post circulated internationally, Peng’s original post was soon deleted. Commentators said the fact that it referenced a former Politburo standing committee member would likely send shockwaves through the corridors of Zhongnanhai, the seat of the CCP regime.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.