WTA still ‘deeply concerned' over Peng Shuai's ability to communicate freely

Photograph: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has said it remains “deeply concerned” about the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, weeks after she disappeared following her allegations against a high-ranking Chinese former politician.

The WTA said in an email statement on Saturday that its chief executive, Steve Simon, had attempted to contact Peng through “various communication channels” including two emails. It said it was concerned about her welfare and ability to communicate freely and that her responses were “clearly” influenced by others.

A spokesperson said Simon “remains deeply concerned that Peng is not free from censorship or coercion and [he] decided not to re-engage via email until he was satisfied her responses were her own, and not those of her censors.”

“The WTA remains concerned about her ability to communicate freely, openly, and directly,” they added.

Peng, a former women’s doubles world No 1 and one of China’s highest-profile sport stars, disappeared from public view after she accused the Chinese former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her into having sex at his home in 2018.

Her social media posts containing the allegations on the Chinese social network Weibo were quickly deleted, and the 35-year-old was not seen in public for more than a fortnight. It provoked a campaign on social media using the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai, and it is the first time that China’s #MeToo movement has touched the highest echelons of the ruling Communist party.

Related: The disappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai

Simon has threatened to pull the WTA out of China unless he is given proof she is safe. There are 10 WTA events scheduled to take place in the country next year, including the Wuhan Open and the WTA finals in Shenzhen.

After not being seen for weeks, Peng took part in a video call on 21 November with the International Olympic Committee’s president, Thomas Bach, as well as a Chinese sport official and an IOC representative.

A statement released by the IOC said Peng appeared to be “doing fine” and that she “would like her privacy respected”. It did not explain how the call had been organised.

The IOC was criticised two days later by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch for working with Chinese authorities.

Related: Peng Shuai: IOC accused of ‘publicity stunt’ over video call

Its China director, Sophie Richardson, said: “It’s a whole different order of magnitude to see Thomas Bach, in a photograph with a woman, Peng Shuai, under intense pressure, we can reasonably assume from other cases, to walk back her claims of sexual assault, rather than figuring doing everything in his and the organisation’s power to call that out and make sure that she is afforded the support and investigation and prosecution that may well be warranted.”

Beijing is due to host the Winter Olympics, starting in February.

Zhang, now in his mid-70s, had been head of a government working group for the Beijing games before retiring as vice-premier. He was pictured meeting Bach during a meeting in the Chinese capital in 2016, but has largely faded from public life since his retirement in 2018.

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