Dubious Peng Shuai Letter Sparks Fears About Chinese Tennis Star's Safety

An email purportedly written by Peng Shuai and addressed to the head of the Women's Tennis Association has fueled speculation about the safety of the missing Chinese tennis star, two weeks after she cracked open her country's biggest sexual assault scandal.

The letter walked back Peng's allegations against a senior Chinese official, but WTA chairman Steve Simon, who had called for a full investigation, said he didn't believe the message was authentic.

A former world doubles No. 1, Peng wrote on her personal Weibo account on November 2 that she had had an on-off affair with former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli 10 years ago. Peng accused Zhang, who sat at the top of the Chinese leadership surrounding Xi Jinping, of raping her in 2018. Her Weibo account was scrubbed half an hour later.

On Wednesday, the Twitter account of a Chinese state news outlet shared a screenshot of what appeared to be a poorly crafted email, which it said had been sent to the WTA's Simon even though it was addressed to "everyone." The letter posted by CGTN—the rebranded international arm of China's state broadcaster CCTV—was not carried on its website, which is accessible in China. Twitter is banned in the country.

The screenshot of the sparsely punctuated letter included a typing cursor in the middle of the second paragraph—suggesting that the image was made while the content was still in word processing software. It read:

"Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai.

"Regarding the recent news released on the official website of the WTA, the content has not been confirmed or verified by myself and it was released without my consent. The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true. I'm not missing, nor am I unsafe. I've just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.

"If the WTA publishes any more news about me, please verify it with me, and release it with my consent. As a professional tennis player, I thank you all for your companionship and consideration. I hope to promote Chinese tennis with you all if I have the chance in the future. I hope Chinese tennis will become better and better.

"Once again, thank you for your consideration."

In a statement responding to the CGTN post, Simon said it "only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts."

He went on: "I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her. 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."

Simon also reiterated a point he made in an earlier statement about Peng, issued on Sunday, saying: "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."

China State Media Posts Peng Shuai Email
Peng Shuai of China celebrates a shot during her match against Lin Zhu on Day 2 of the 2020 WTA Shenzhen Open at Shenzhen Longgang Sports Center on January 6, 2020. Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

Following his initial statement, Simon told The New York Times that sources in the Chinese Tennis Association had assured him that Peng was safe and in Beijing. He suggested that Peng's case, if not appropriately handled, could lead the WTA to suspend its business in China.

Within the highly regulated walls of China's closed internet, Peng's #MeToo allegation—the most significant in the country's history—has all but disappeared. A search on Weibo for the words "Peng Shuai" returned no results; an attempt for "Zhang Gaoli" revealed older, non-related posts from 2018.

The WTA's verified Weibo account continues to publish posts—and tennis fans are still engaging with its content—but there was no mention of Peng or Simon's statements on the account. Keyword searches on China's two largest search engines, Baidu and Sogou, came up empty as well.

It is unclear whether the decision to omit Simon's statements from Weibo was made by the WTA or its Asia-Pacific office in Beijing. The association's corporate headquarters in Florida has not returned Newsweek's request for comment.

I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.
Email attributed by Chinese state media to missing tennis player Peng Shuai

The Chinese government frequently censors posts on Weibo to regulate the flow of information. It can suppress sensitive discussions or amplify topics that align with Beijing's political position. Chinese actor Zhao Wei is among the public figures who observers say has been "deleted" from the internet.

However, Peng's case seems to be generating precisely the sort of attention China is trying to avoid. On Twitter, some of the biggest names in the sport have posted about their concern, using the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.

On Tuesday, men's world No. 1 Novak Djokovic said: "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."

The following day, four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka tweeted: "Censorship is never ok at any cost, I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and ok. I'm in shock of the current situation and I'm sending love and light her way. #whereispengshuai"

Under her latest post on Weibo, Chinese users reportedly thanked Osaka for speaking out. These comments were scrubbed en masse.