WTA issue statement addressing Peng Shuai’s first interview since disappearing

Concerns mount over Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai

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Peng Shuai has denied making sexual assault claims in a new video posted by Singaporean media. The former doubles world No 1 accused China’s former vice premier in a lengthy social media post last month and has made limited appearances since, sparking fears for her safety and freedom. The Women’s Tennis Association is continuing to call for an investigation into Peng’s original claims as the organisation remains unconvinced over the new video.

On November 2, Peng took to Chinese social media platform Weibo to accuse the country’s former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault in a lengthy post, in what was believed to be the first account against such a high-ranking political figure – with the now-retired politician serving on China’s top ruling council, the Politburo Standing Committee, between 2012 and 2017.

The post was removed within half an hour, while Zhang has not responded to the claims, though a spokesperson for Beijing’s foreign ministry denied all knowledge of the allegations when asked at the time, saying: “I have not heard of it and it is not a diplomatic question.”

The two-time doubles Grand Slam champion was then not seen or heard from for almost three weeks after accusing Zhang, who is more than 40 years her senior, of sexual abuse. She later made limited appearances in photos and videos posted by China’s state-affiliated media, and in two video calls with the International Olympic Committee president.

The WTA has continued to lead calls for a full investigation into Peng’s allegations, and for proof that the tennis player is able to communicate free of any control or coercion.

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WTA CEO and Chairman Steve Simon suspended all tournaments in China with immediate effect on December 1, saying these requests had not been addressed, and saying the tour could not continue to hold events in the country “when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault.”

Peng has now been seen in a video posted by Singaporean Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, denying making any claims of sexual assault against Zhang.

“I would like to stress a very important point: I have never said nor written anything accusing anyone of sexually assaulting me. I would like to emphasise this point very clearly,” the 35-year-old said in a video filmed on a phone during an appearance at a cross-country skiing event in Shanghai on Sunday.

When asked about her Weibo post in the video, the former singles world No 14 did not deny publishing it but said it was a “private matter” that people had “many misunderstandings” about.

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A person is also heard in the video, asking if anyone has been keeping a watch on her since making the allegation or if she has been moving around freely, to which Peng responds: “Why would someone keep watch over me? I’ve been very free all along.”

However, the WTA remains unconvinced and, in a statement published shortly after the video was released, said her appearance still did not address their concerns, while doubling down on calls for a probe into her allegations.

“We remain steadfast in our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern,” the governing body of women’s tennis said.

“It was again good to see Peng Shuai in a public setting and we certainly hope she is doing well. As we have consistently stated, these appearances do not alleviate or address the WTA’s significant concerns about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion.”

In the new video posted by Singaporean Chinese-language media, Peng also said she personally wrote a letter to WTA CEO Steve Simon last month denying her allegations, claiming that the English translation previously published by Chinese state media was correct.

On November 17 CGTN Europe – the China state-affiliated media account in question shared attached a written statement allegedly written by the Wimbledon and French Open champion to Simon, which reads: “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.”

But Simon slammed the validity of the email, saying later that day: “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.”

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