Show proof that missing Chinese star Peng Shuai is safe, says Women’s Tennis Association head

Peng Shuai (pictured) alleged on Weibo that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli had "forced" her into sex during a long-term on-off relationship. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - Women's Tennis Association (WTA) head Steve Simon on Thursday (Nov 18) called for proof that missing tennis star Peng Shuai is safe, after he received an e-mail allegedly from Ms Peng seeking to gag the professional organisation.

The former world doubles No. 1 player has not been seen in public since Nov 2, right after she supposedly accused former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing himself on her three years ago.

The non-consensual act had purportedly happened after Mr Zhang, 75, invited Ms Peng, 35, to play tennis with him and his wife at his house. It also apparently rekindled an extramarital affair that ended only on Nov 2, after Mr Zhang started ignoring Ms Peng.

The two had been romantically involved before, when they first met seven years ago.

Her purported 1,500-word account that was posted on her official Weibo page on Nov 2 - based on screenshots seen by The Straits Times - can no longer be found. A search on Chinese search engine Baidu using Ms Peng's and Mr Zhang's names yielded no results.

Media reports noted that her Weibo post was taken down within 30 minutes.

In her supposed e-mail to the WTA, Ms Peng had sought to assure Mr Simon that she was neither missing nor in any danger. The screenshot of the e-mail did not carry a date.

She said the sexual assault allegations were not true, and that Mr Simon and the WTA should check with her first before running any news about her.

"I've just been resting at home and everything is fine," she added.

Mr Simon said in a WTA statement that he doubted the origins of the e-mail he received, which was first shared by Chinese state broadcaster CGTN on Twitter at 1.36am on Thursday.

Mr Simon said CGTN's tweet in the wee hours "only raises my concerns" about Ms Peng's safety and whereabouts.

"I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the e-mail... or believes what is being attributed to her," he said.

"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."

On Sunday, Mr Simon had called for the Chinese authorities to investigate Ms Peng's allegations against Mr Zhang, who was China's first-ranked vice-premier and a member of China's most powerful Politburo Standing Committee between 2013 and 2018 under President Xi Jinping.

He told The New York Times that the tour would consider stopping its business in China if it did not see "appropriate results" .

Grand Slam champions Novak Djokovic, Naomi Osaka and Chris Evert have also expressed similar worries about Ms Peng's safety earlier this week.

The e-mail that Mr Simon received marks the latest development in the mystery surrounding China's most high-profile sexual assault allegation to date, involving the highest echelons of the Communist Party of China.

Mr Zhang has yet to respond to Ms Peng's allegations. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Thursday that he was unaware of the matter, and that it was not a diplomatic issue.

Former Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli has yet to respond to Ms Peng Shuai's allegations. PHOTO: AFP

Photos of Ms Peng wearing a pendant bearing the letter "Z" during matches from years ago quickly began circulating after screenshots of her allegations went viral on messaging app WeChat.

Before the photos were taken down, media reports have also questioned whether the pendant was a gift from Mr Zhang.

Snippets of earlier interviews showed Ms Peng responding coyly to reporters when asked if the pendant was significant, and that she did not provide a clear reply to their queries.

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