Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai published a long message on Nov. 2 describing a sexual assault by and a sporadic consensual relationship with Zhang Gaoli, a former high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party. Her message was quickly scrubbed from Weibo, the social media platform on which it was posted, and search terms relating to her post were blocked. In the weeks since, Peng has not been publicly heard from after leveling an accusation against a powerful state official. Earlier this week, Steve Simon, the CEO and chairman of the Women’s Tennis Association, commended Peng’s “strength and courage” and called for an investigation of her allegations. “We expect this issue to be handled properly, meaning the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship,” his statement read. “Our absolute and unwavering priority is the health and safety of our players. We are speaking out so justice can be done.” Players like Naomi Osaka expressed concerns for Peng’s safety.
Those concerns escalated on Wednesday, when an email supposedly penned by Peng Shuai was sent to Simon. Chinese state media claimed it had gotten a copy of the email and shared it publicly. It is difficult to take seriously. In addition to the stilted tone and retraction of Peng’s previous claims, there’s a cursor in the screenshot.
Unconvinced by this letter attributed to Peng, Simon explained his doubts in another statement:
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 said he had been assured by the Chinese Tennis Association that Peng was safe in Beijing, but was frustrated by his own attempts to reach Peng through a number of messaging channels. “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,” he told Time on Wednesday.
Simon also said that he was prepared to end the WTA’s extensive business in China. There are 10 tournaments in the country slated for the 2022 season. In 2018, the WTA committed to playing the WTA Finals, one of the biggest events in women’s tennis, in Shenzhen. Simon said Shenzhen tournament organizers committed to investing over $1 billion into the event and the new stadium. (Due to the pandemic, last year’s WTA Finals were cancelled and this year’s were moved to Guadalajara, Mexico.)
“Should we find that what we are asking for cannot happen or will not happen,” Simon told Time, “we are prepared to no longer do business within the region and move forward.”