Olympic Committee Believes Tennis Star Peng Shuai is 'Safe,' as WTA Head Demands Answers

Chinese professional tennis player Peng Shuai supposedly sent an email Thursday claiming she was safe and that sexual abuse allegations she made were false, but the Women's Tennis Association worried that the email is not actually from Peng, the Associated Press reported.

Peng has not been seen since she publicly accused a former top government official of sexual assault about two weeks ago. Chinese officials have said nothing about the accusation, the first #MeToo case to enter the political realm in China and quickly be muted.

The International Olympic Committee remains optimistic and said in a statement on Thursday: "We have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe."

Steve Simon, chairman and CEO of WTA, questioned the authenticity of what Chinese state media claimed was an email intended for him from Peng. The email was posted Thursday by CGTN, the international arm of Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, in which Peng said she is safe and that the assault allegation was untrue.

"I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her... [the statement] only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts," Simon wrote.

Simon also spoke about his concern for the tennis player and wants to confirm that she is truly safe.

"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 communications, to no avail," Simon wrote.

Simon has demanded a full investigation, while China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Thursday that he is unaware of the case.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Chinese professional tennis player Peng Shuai
Former pro tennis player Peng Shuai of China has not been seen since she publicly accused a former top government official of sexual assault about two weeks ago. Above, Peng returns a ball during the semifinal match against Shahar Peer of Israel in the Guangzhou WTA Tour in Guangzhou in south China's Guangdong province on September 19, 2009. File/Associated Press

The WTA said it is prepared to pull tournaments out of the country if it doesn't get an appropriate response. Top players including Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic have spoken out, and the hashtag WhereisPengShuai is trending online.

China has largely suppressed a #MeToo movement that flourished briefly in 2018 and is forging ahead with the Beijing Winter Olympics in February despite boycott calls by activists and some overseas politicians over China's human rights record.

The 35-year-old Peng is 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 on November 2 that Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier who was a member of the ruling Communist Party's top leadership committee, had forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals three years ago.

The post was quickly deleted from her verified account on Weibo, a leading Chinese social media platform, but screenshots of the explosive accusation quickly spread across China's internet. She has not appeared in public since then, raising questions about her whereabouts and whether she is being detained.

Zhang, who is 75, dropped from public sight after his retirement in 2018, as is usual for former senior officials. He is not known to have any close connections to current leaders.

Peng's accusation is the first high profile accusation of sexual assault against a powerful politician in China. Past accusations touched on prominent figures in the non-profit world, academia and media, but never reached the Communist Party's top officials or state-owned companies.

CGTN posted the statement on Twitter, which is blocked in China along with many other foreign platforms such as Google and Facebook. It did not post it on Chinese social media, nor was there any mention of the purported email behind the Great Firewall, which separates the Chinese internet from the rest of the world.

Some internet users have circumvented the controls and posted about the news in private social media groups. Freeweibo.com, which records censored posts from Weibo, said searches for "Peng Shuai" and "Zhang Gaoli" were both among the top 10 searched topics on Thursday.

Searches for Peng Shuai's name on China's Sogou search engine turn up only articles about her tennis career. Her account on Weibo no longer allows comments, and no results turn up if people search for her Weibo account.

Peng wrote that Zhang's wife guarded the door during the alleged assault, which followed a round of tennis. Her post also said they had sex seven years ago and she had feelings for him after that. She also said she knew speaking up would be difficult.

"Yes, aside from myself, I kept no evidence, no recordings, no videos, only the real experience of my twisted self. Even if I'm destroying myself, like throwing an egg against a rock, or a moth flying into a flame, I will still speak out the truth about us," the now-deleted post said.

Her allegation came just three months before Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics, which have been the target of a boycott campaign from multiple human rights organizations largely over China's repression of Uyghur Muslims. The games face a possible diplomatic boycott by the United States and other countries. Rights groups have likened Beijing's 2022 Olympics to Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympics. China has consistently denied any human rights abuses and says its actions are part of counterterrorism programs.

The Switzerland-based IOC, which derives 73 percent of its income from selling broadcast rights and another 18 percent from sponsors, has not criticized China, and often repeats that it is only a sports business and has no remit to act on policies of a sovereign state.

Xu Guoqi, a historian at the University of Hong Kong, explained the difference between the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2022 Games.

"The big difference between the two Beijing Games is that in 2008 Beijing tried to please the world," Xu told AP recently in an email. "In 2022, it does not really care about what the rest of the world thinks about it."

The WTA can better afford to bring pressure since it is less dependent on income from China than the IOC or the NBA. The basketball league lost an estimated $400 million in broadcast rights when China blacked out its games in the 2019-2020 season after then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of protesters in Hong Kong.

Simon's statement said that Peng has displayed incredible courage, but that he is still concerned about her safety.