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WTA still has “significant concerns” after Peng reportedly retracts sexual assault claim

Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has said it still has concern for the welfare of Peng Shuai, despite a report she has retracted allegations of sexual assault made against a high-ranking Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official.

Images of Peng at a cross-country skiing event held in Shanghai to help promote the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics were also shared by Chinese state-run media outlets yesterday.

However, the WTA insisted it still had “significant concerns about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion” in a statement shared widely.

“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,” said the WTA.

The WTA has removed all Chinese tournaments from its calendar in response to the Peng case.

Last month, Peng published a post on Chinese social media platform Weibo in which she said Zhang Gaoli, a former senior vice-premier and senior CCP official, sexually assaulted her 10 years ago.

This was deleted within 20 minutes, and the three-time Olympian was not seen for more than two weeks afterwards.

However, Singapore’s Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao yesterday published an interview with Peng from the event in Shanghai.

“First, I need to stress one point that is extremely important,” Peng was quoted as saying.

“I have never said or written that anyone has sexually assaulted me.

“This point must be emphasised quickly.”

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The Chinese player reportedly added that it was her who sent an email to WTA chief executive and chair Steve Simon in November, published by Chinese state media, in which the author claimed Peng was “not missing, nor am I unsafe” and that the allegation of sexual assault “is not true”.

Simon expressed doubt over whether Peng had written the message at the time – the language was stylistically similar to the prose of English-language Chinese state media and the email was shared via a screenshot where the author’s cursor was visible, indicating it has not been sent – but Peng told Lianhe Zaobao it was written “completely out of my own will”.

Peng’s remarks appear to be the first time that she has directed addressed the Weibo post, but the WTA said it failed to quell its fundamental concerns.

The Peng case sparked widespread international concern for her safety.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has held two video calls with the two-time women’s doubles Grand Slam winner, although critics argue this has played into the hands of Chinese propaganda.

IOC President Thomas Bach insisted last month that “all aspects of this case are being discussed with the Chinese side”, in the face of criticism of the IOC for not mentioning the allegation of sexual assault in any of its communications on the matter.

China’s Foreign Ministry has accused others of “malicious hyping” and “politicisation” of the Peng case.

It has proved a major controversy in the build-up to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, scheduled for February 4 to 20, although the IOC has insisted that it has received guarantees over the safety of all participants.

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