Peng Shuai latest: China denies knowledge of missing tennis player as state media lashes out at WTA

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The Chinese government has claimed it is “not aware” of the controversy around Peng Shuai amid growing internaional concern over the welfare of the tennis star.

Peng has not been seen in public since she accused former vice premier of China Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault in a social media post on 2 November.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Friday said the matter was “not a diplomatic question and I’m not aware of the situation”. The ministry has claimed that they were unaware of the issue since the tennis star made the allegations.

The 35-year-old in a social media post on Chinese social media platform Weibo shared that she had been forced to have sex with Zhang Gaoli, a vice premier of the Communist party, despite repeated refusals three years ago. The post was taken down soon after it was posted.

Mr Zhao’s comment comes on the heels of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) announcement that it was prepared to pull their tournaments out of China if they are not satisfied with the response to the sexual assault allegation.

“We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it. Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business. Women need to be respected and not censored,” WTA chief executive Steve Simon told CNN.

He also questioned the authenticity of an email, a screenshot of which was tweeted by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV. The email was reportedly intended for him in which Peng said she was safe and that the assault allegation was untrue.

The WTA has been focusing on China for expansion and hosted nine tournaments in the country in the 2019 season.

The former top-ranked player in women’s doubles, Peng won titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014. She has also participated in three Olympics, making her disappearance a prominent issue ahead of the Winter Olympics, which will be held in Beijing in February.

Her disappearance seems sure to increase pressure on China ahead of the games. Global rights groups have called for a boycott of the Games because of Beijing’s human rights track record over the treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority.

Hu Xijin, the editor of the state-run Global Times newspaper, wrote a rebuttal to Mr Simon on Twitter.

“Don't use a coercive tone when expressing any concern to China,” he said in a tweet. “Perhaps you did it out of goodwill. But you should understand China, including understanding how the system you dislike has promoted the actual rights of the 1.4 billion Chinese,” he added.

The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai has so far racked up millions of mentions on social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, even as the topic is banned from discussion on Chinese platforms.

Tennis greats Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Billie Jean King have all added their voices to the growing chorus of those concerned about the welfare of the Chinese tennis star.

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