Chinese tennis star who accused party leader of abuse has disappeared and now (allegedly) recants by email

(AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

If you have any kind of public platform in China and you dare to say something the government doesn’t like, there’s a very good chance you will disappear. It has happened to bloggers covering the COVID outbreak, to billionaires, to doctors, to Chinese movie stars and now it seems to be happening to tennis star Peng Shuai.

Earlier this month, Peng wrote a post on the Chinese social media site Weibo accusing a senior member of the Communist Party named Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her:

In the 1,500-character post, Peng gave a detailed account of her encounters with Zhang, now 75, which began a decade ago. Peng claims, in her post, she had an on-again, off-again affair with Zhang, who was married, starting before he rose up the party ranks and became vice premier.

About three years ago, after Zhang retired from his role, he invited her over to his house to play tennis with him and his wife. She said he then sexually assaulted her while his wife stood outside guarding the door…

“I know that for someone of your eminence, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid,” Peng wrote, according to The New York Times. “But even if it’s just me, like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you.”

That post Peng put up was deleted about 20 minutes later, but not before people saw it and copies were made. That was on November 2 and since then it appears no one has heard a word from Peng. Her social media accounts have gone dark and efforts to contact her have all failed.

It was radio silence until yesterday evening when a state media outlet published an email Peng allegedly sent to the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). As you can see, the email is retracting the #MeToo allegation against Zhang. Actually, it’s not retracting the allegation so much as claiming she didn’t make it in the first place even though it was released on her verified account. Adding “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe” to a sketchy email from someone no one has seen or spoken to for weeks is a nice touch.

If you think this whole story sounds a little bit suspect, you’re not alone.

It was sent to the WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon, CGTN reported.

Simon has said he doubts the email is authentic.

“The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” Simon said in a statement. “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her.”

He added: “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.”

Here’s the real giveaway:

The alleged email was released by CGTN only in English and domestic Chinese media have not reported on its contents, despite Peng being a household name in China.

On Thursday, a video showed a TV in China tuned into CNN International’s programming which then transitions into bars, due to CNNi’s signal being censored in China to prevent further reporting on Peng’s accusations.

So the allegations are being hushed up domestically and Peng is allegedly claiming via email the allegation was false but only in English. This has all of the hallmarks of a state orchestrated campaign. Unfortunately, Peng has probably been threatened with prison (or worse) unless she agrees to let the state retract the allegation on her behalf. She may reappear at some point but there’s no telling when that will be.

As Patrick McEnroe points out in this clip, the WTA approach to this issue is basically the opposite of the NBA approach to China. Instead of softening its tone, Steve Simon is basically calling BS on this email and demanding an investigation of the retired party official she accused. It’s good to see some people in the sports world still have a little backbone.