Steve Simon, chairman and CEO of the WTA, said in a statement on Wednesday that he doesn’t believe a recent email he received is actually from missing Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai.
Peng bravely accused former top government official Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault on Nov. 2 using the Chinese social media platform Weibo. The post was quickly removed and all discussion about Peng and her accusation were censored from the platform. Since then, she hasn’t been seen or heard from publicly.
CGTN, the international arm of China’s state-owned media organization, used Twitter on Wednesday to publish a email that they said was written by Peng and sent to Simon. The email, in which Peng ostensibly says she’s safe and “resting at home,” uses several suspicious phrases and completely recants her earlier accusation of sexual assault.
In his statement, Simon said that he has “a hard time believing” Peng wrote that email or that she would recant her sexual assault accusation.
“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.”
Simon told Time on Wednesday that he’s received word from the Chinese Tennis Association that Peng is safe in Beijing, but that he’d rather hear that from Peng herself. He’s tried numerous methods to get in touch with her but has not been successful.
“I will remain worried until I am able to speak with her, or she speaks with somebody in our organization, whomever she’s comfortable with,” says Simon. “So that we can be assured that she’s OK and where she’s at. And that she knows we’re here to support her in any way that we can. That’s our number one priority. The other things are secondary.”
In an earlier statement, the Simon and the WTA called for a full investigation into Peng’s accusations. According to Time, Simon has threatened to move all WTA tournaments out of China if the government doesn’t launch an investigation, a move that would cost the WTA, China and advertisers billions of dollars.
Naomi Osaka, Novak Djokovic concerned for Peng’s safety
Some of the world’s top tennis players have publicly expressed concern that she hasn’t been seen or heard from in over two weeks. On Tuesday, Naomi Osaka tweeted the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai along with a picture and a short statement hoping that Peng and her family are safe.
At the ATP Finals in Turin, Novak Djokovic said he was shocked that Peng is missing, and can’t imagine how her family must feel.
“I don’t have much information about it,” Djokovic said via Eurosport. “I did hear about it a week ago. Honestly, it’s shocking that she’s missing, more so that it’s someone that I have seen on the tour in the previous years quite a few times.
“It’s not much more to say than hope that she will be found, that she’s OK. It’s just terrible. I can imagine just how her family feels that she’s missing.”