Women’s Tennis Association say that tennis star ‘deserves to be heard’ on sexual assault claims

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) say that the female Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai deserves to be heard after having made public allegations that she was sexually assaulted by the country’s former vice-premier.

In a post made earlier this months on a Chinese social media site Peng says that she was forced into a sexual relationship with Zhang Gaoli. Zhang who served as China’s vice-premier between 2013 and 2018 has not responded to the allegations.

In the post, Peng who is aged 35 alleged that she and Zhang, 75, had an on-off extramarital “relationship” over several years, which she said he tried to keep secret. Peng said Zhang had stopped contacting her after he rose in the ranks of the Communist party.  She went on to allege that about three years ago, Zhang invited her to play tennis with him and his wife and then sexually assaulted her in his house.

On 14 November the WTA issued a strong statement and called for an investigation and its chief executive, Steve Simon, said that while they have received “assurances” Peng is safe, they have not been able to reach her.

The WTA said that “The allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship.”

The WTA also said that “Our absolute and unwavering priority is the health and safety of our players. We are speaking out so justice can be done.”

The Chinese government has not responded to the allegations. A spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs, which deals with international media, told reporters he was not aware of the situation.

However, on the 17th November a letter was published on the China Global Television Network Europe’s Twitter page, which the broadcaster claimed was sent from Peng to WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon, which stated read: “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 news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true. I’m not missing, nor I am unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.”

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

After the above letter was published several photographs of Peng Shuai were posted on a social media account in her name but there was widespread concern as to the validity of these posts. There was also press coverage that she had attended tennis tournament in Beijing.

The latest development took place last Sunday when the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) issued a statement and a picture of IOC President Thomas Bach speaking to Peng Shuai  and reporting that they spoke for 30 minutes and that she is safe and well and living at her home in Beijing but wants her privacy respected at this time.

Despite these assurances the WTA is still requesting to speak to Peng Shuai themselves and have threatened to pull the WTA’s business form China. The WTA in a recent statement say that the recent video of Thomas Bach speaking to Peng Shuai doesn’t “…alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her wellbeing and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion”.

Other have been equally critical of the recent call, Human Rights Watch have branded the call a “collaboration” with Chinese authorities on Peng Shuai’s reappearance  and “undermines its expressed commitment to human rights, including the rights and safety of athletes”.

Recent development have come at a challenging time for China as it prepares to host the Winter Olympics and there has been talk of some counties considering their position in terms of attendance in light of how this situation has developed in recent weeks.

Sharon Moohan, Partner, BLM

The National Association for People Abused in Childhood is a national charity offering support to adult survivors of all types of childhood abuse, including physical, emotional, sexual and neglect. As well as advocating on behalf of survivors in the media and elsewhere, NAPAC also trains professionals who have frequent contact with survivors of child abuse as part of their working environment. If you have been affected by the issues raised in today’s blog, or would like additional support, please use the links above.

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