China state media release attributed to Peng Shuai raises WTA 'concerns'

BEIJING -- The head of the women's professional tennis tour questioned the legitimacy of what Chinese state media said was a retraction by Peng Shuai, who has accused a former top government official of sexual assault.

WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon said Wednesday that a statement attributed to the Grand Slam doubles champion and tweeted out by CGTN, the international arm of Chinese state broadcaster CCTV -- which said it contained the contents of an email Peng wrote to Simon -- "only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts."

"The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe," Simon said. "I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communications, to no avail."

The WTA said it is prepared to pull tournaments out of China if it doesn't get an appropriate response.

Peng is a 35-year-old from China and a former No. 1-ranked player in women's doubles who won titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.

She wrote in a lengthy social media post earlier this month that a former vice premier and member of the ruling Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee had forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals.

The post was removed from her verified account on Weibo, a leading Chinese social media platform, and the country's state-controlled media has suppressed all reporting on the case.

Simon, who called Sunday for a full investigation and demanded that Peng not be censored, on Wednesday questioned the authenticity of what CGTN said was an email intended for him in which Peng says that she is safe and that the assault allegation is "not true."

"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. "Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government.

"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."

Top players, including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic, as well as ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi, have spoken out, and #WhereIsPengShuai is trending online.

"I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai," Williams posted to Twitter on Thursday. "I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent. Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time. #whereispengshuai"

Asked repeatedly about the case, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said again on Thursday that he is unaware of it.

CGTN is among the numerous propaganda tools wielded by the ruling Communist Party in an attempt to sway foreign opinion. It has been sanctioned on numerous occasions by British TV regulator Ofcom for airing forced confessions by a British businessman, a Hong Kong bookseller and an employee of the UK consulate in Hong Kong.

Earlier this month, Peng wrote that Zhang Gaoli forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals after a round of tennis three years ago. She said Zhang's wife guarded the door during the incident.

Her post also said that they had sex once seven years ago and that she had feelings for him after that.

As is usual for retired Chinese officials, 75-year-old Zhang dropped from public sight after his retirement in 2018 and is not known to have any intimate professional or political connections to current leaders.

Peng won 23 tour-level doubles titles and was a singles semifinalist at the 2014 US Open. She hasn't competed on tour since the Qatar Open in February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced tennis to take a hiatus.

Peng also participated in three Olympics. The International Olympic Committee and China are organizing the Beijing Winter Games, which start Feb. 4.

The IOC, which on Wednesday said it was in touch with the International Tennis Federation, issued a statement Thursday after the statement attributed to Peng was tweeted out by CGTN.

"We have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe,'' the IOC said in its statement.

ITF spokesperson Heather Bowler said Thursday that the governing body is in contact with the Chinese Tennis Association and is liaising with the WTA and the IOC.

"Player safety is always our top priority and we support a full and transparent investigation into this matter,'' Bowler wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "While we have not spoken to the player, we are in touch with the national tennis association in China (CTA) in the event they may be able to provide any further information or updates."

The WTA Finals were held in Mexico this month because of the pandemic, with the event scheduled to return in 2022 to Shenzhen, China. The WTA holds several tournaments in China, and the WTA Finals are scheduled there through 2030.

Peng's accusation was the first against a prominent government official since the #MeToo movement took hold in China in 2018 before being largely shut down by authorities the same year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.