BEIJING (REUTERS) - A well-connected Chinese state media editor on Friday (Nov 19) weighed in on the scandal involving Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai and her accusation of sexual assault by a former vice-premier, saying he does not believe she has been the target of retribution.
The 35-year-old former doubles world No. 1 has not been seen or heard from publicly since she said on social media on Nov 2 that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli coerced her into sex and that they later had an on-off consensual relationship.
Concern in the global tennis community and beyond has grown over Ms Peng's safety and whereabouts since her allegation, with the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) calling for an investigation and the world's top players tweeting #WhereIsPengShuai.
Neither Mr Zhang nor the Chinese government has commented on her allegation. Ms Peng's social media post was quickly deleted and the topic has been blocked from discussion on China's heavily censored Internet.
"As a person who is familiar with the Chinese system, I don't believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression, speculated by foreign media, for the thing people talked about," Mr Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, tweeted early on Friday.
The Global Times is published by the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily, and the influential Mr Hu has an active presence on Twitter, which is blocked in China. He did not make any similar comment on his official Weibo account.
Known for often combative tweets targeted at the United States, Mr Hu has a uniquely high profile in China's tightly controlled state media.
The head of the WTA on Wednesday cast doubt on an e-mail, which was also released by a Chinese state media outlet on Twitter, purporting to be from Ms Peng and denying the allegations of sexual assault and saying she is fine and resting at home.
"I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the e-mail we received or believes what is being attributed to her," WTA chairman and chief executive Steve Simon said on Wednesday.
The issue has emerged as China prepares to host the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February amid calls from global rights groups and others for a boycott over its human rights record.
"This is not a foreign affairs matter, and I am not aware of the situation you mentioned," Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Thursday when asked about Ms Peng's whereabouts and whether China is concerned that her case would affect its image ahead of the Olympics.