Peng Shuai, a 35-year-old Chinese pro-tennis player who went missing after coming forward with sexual assault allegations against former politician Zhang Gaoli, released a cryptic email Wednesday night that skeptics believe only raises more concerns.
In the email sent to the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) from China’s state-owned news broadcast CGTN, the statement claimed that it was from Peng Shuai herself, and that she was “fine” and resting at home. The bizarre statement has only escalated concerns over her safety, with many fans online asking “where is she?”
After posting about her alleged sexual assault on China’s social media platform Weibo, the post was taken down within a half-hour of publishing and the tennis star has not been heard from on social media or seen in public since Monday, Nov. 15.
“Hello, this is from Peng Shuai,” the email began. “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 statement then goes on to deny the claims of sexual assault and calls them “untrue,” despite being posted by the tennis star herself on Weibo and removed. “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe,” the post continued. “If the WTA publishes any more news about me, please verify it with me, and release it with my consent.”
WTA CEO Steve Simon later raised his doubts over the email’s authenticity however, claiming its strange release and lack of reporting in China.
“The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” Steve Simon said in his statement Wednesday night. “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 must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source,” he continued. “Her allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship.”
CGTN’s email, which was said to be from the pro-tennis player, was only released in English and sent to the WTA chairman. Domestic Chinese media has reportedly not spoken about her alleged statement, though CNN claims that Pen Shuai is a household name in the country.
The professional Chinese tennis star is an active two-time grand slam doubles champion and former world No. 14 singles-ranked athlete.
The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai began trending on social media, though it is being heavily watched and redacted in China on Weibo. China has a history of silencing the #MeToo movement against powerful men in the country, and has censored searches on Weibo for “tennis.” The country has also disabled comments on her page after removing the allegations.
Commenting on Twitter, tennis player Naomi Osaka wrote that “censorship is never OK at any cost” and offered support for the Chinese tennis player and her family.
“I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way,” Osaka wrote, adding the #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King also commented on the news of the tennis star’s disappearance, writing that she hoped “Peng Shuai is found safe and that her accusations are fully investigated.”
In her original post, the Chinese tennis player wrote that she never consented to a sexual encounter with the former vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, 75, and that he forced her into an extramarital affair. She said that he made her keep it a secret after he became a prominent member of the Chinese communist party, until she decided to come forward on Monday.
“Like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction,” she wrote, “I’ll tell the truth about you.”