Dhe call “Where is Peng Shuai?” shakes the tennis world – and causes a sensation outside of China as well. In the two weeks since the 35-year-old was accused of alleged sexual assault by a top Chinese politician, the former Wimbledon and French Open double winner has not been seen. It is considered to have disappeared.

Now an alleged email is causing concern that Peng Shuai is said to have sent to the WTA player organization. China’s state foreign broadcaster CGTN published an email on Thursday night on Twitter that the 35-year-old tennis star is said to have written himself and that was sent to WTA boss Steve Simon.

In the letter under her name, which the state broadcaster published, it says: “I am not missing.” She is also safe. “I only recovered a little at home.”

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The reports about her, “including allegations of sexual assault,” were “not true,” it said. She is fine. “I find it hard to believe that Peng Shuai actually wrote this email that we received,” wrote WTA boss Simon.

In addition to tennis associations, numerous tennis colleagues were also shocked by the case, including Naomi Osaka and Chris Evert. All demand full and fair clarification.

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“I am in shock at the current situation and send love and light in their direction,” wrote Japan’s star Osaka on Twitter on Wednesday. She criticized China’s censorship, which prevents any debate on the case on the internet and social media. “I hope that Peng Shuai and her family are safe and well.”

The former world number one Evert called the allegations “very disturbing”. “We should all be concerned,” wrote the American, who has known Peng Shuai since she was 14, on Twitter. “That is serious. Where is she? Is it safe? “

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The international women’s tennis organization WTA only asked for clarification on Sunday. WTA boss Steve Simon was quoted as saying that the recent events in China are being followed with great concern. “Peng Shuai and all women deserve to be heard and not censored.”

The allegations “including sexual coercion” must be treated with the utmost seriousness. Such behavior must be “investigated, not tacitly tolerated or ignored” in all societies. “Women around the world find their voices heard so that injustices can be corrected.”

Relationship with Gaoli revealed

At the beginning of November, Peng Shuai published an article in the Chinese short message service Weibo. However, it was deleted only half an hour after it was published. In it, she revealed that she had had an intermittent relationship with the married former Vice Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli for a period of ten years.

The article speaks of love and affection, but also of an unwanted sexual assault – but without any evidence of the allegation being presented, as it said. The authenticity of the posting via her Weibo account could not be verified.

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The news hit China hard. The censorship went into full swing because 75-year-old Zhang Gaoli was one of the most powerful politicians in China. He was Deputy Prime Minister from 2013 to 2018 – and from 2012 to 2017 even a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the Communist Party’s highest body of power.

It is the first case in which a prominent politician has been caught in the crossfire since the #MeToo movement entered China in 2018. Since then, a few cases had come to light in academia, journalism, and the business world, among others.

It is not uncommon for uncomfortable voices in China to “disappear”, as it is called. But this mostly happens to civil rights activists or other critics of the political system. The censorship approach is also in stark contrast to the handling of recent allegations against the Sino-Canadian pop singer and actor Kris Wu.

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The 30-year-old was arrested on suspicion of rape in August after allegations of sexual assault were raised. State media reiterated the allegations against Wu, who is one of the most successful and highest paid celebrities in China. The criticism, however, also fit in with a campaign by the Communist Party against the moral degeneration of show stars.

Today, Peng Shuai’s Weibo account is no longer available. Neither your name nor #MeToo can be searched on the Chinese Internet. The latest news that can still be found about the tennis star is from 2016. The Hong Kong newspaper “South China Morning Post” quoted someone who used to work for her team that Peng Shuai could not be contacted.

“Shocking that she is missing”

For years, Peng Shuai was one of the best doubles players in the world. She celebrated 23 tournament victories, including the titles at Wimbledon 2013 and the French Open 2014. She has not played on the tour since the end of February last year.

The professional organization for men, the ATP, also expressed its “deep concern”. In a message from ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi, however, it was vague: “We are encouraged by the latest assurances that the WTA has received that it is safe and that its whereabouts have been clarified – and will continue to monitor the situation closely.” the WTA, however, gave no statement as to where Peng Shuai is supposed to have stayed. “It is shocking that she is missing,” said top star Novak Djokovic.

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Sensitivity and culture of debate

China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said: “The Chinese government has a long history of arbitrarily detaining people in controversial cases, controlling their freedom of expression, and making them make coerced statements.” CHRD pointed to the allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power: “These allegations should not be censored, but rather trigger an impartial and fair investigation.

China is an important business area for the WTA. A whole series of tournaments are held there when there is not a corona pandemic. Normally the season finale would have been in Shenzhen until this Wednesday, but it has been moved to Mexico. For the larger sports world, the Peng Shuai cause is explosive because the Olympic Winter Games begin in Beijing on February 4th.

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