Tennis player Peng Shuai – who has not been heard from since making sexual assault allegations against China’s former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli – has allegedly sent a letter claiming "everything is fine".
Peng made the allegations against Zhang on her verified Weibo social media account at the start of November.
The 35-year-old claimed she was coerced into having sex with the former Politburo Standing Committee, beginning an on-off consensual relationship with the now 75-year-old.
Peng’s post was deleted around 30 minutes after it was published and she has not been heard from since, sparking concern around the world.
Tennis stars such as Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka have spoken out on the situation, while WTA chairman and chief executive Steve Simon urged the Chinese Government to investigate the allegations and end the censorship on Peng.
Chinese state media outlet CGTN has now published a letter addressed to Simon, allegedly written by Peng herself.
"The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true. I am not missing, nor am I unsafe.
"I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me."
In a written statement, Simon cast doubt on the origins of the letter. It has also been described as "dubious" by New York Times freelance writer Ben Rothenberg.
"The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts," Simon wrote.
"I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her.
"Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government.
"The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe. I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail."
Simon added: "Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source. Her allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship.
"The voices of women need to be heard and respected, not censored nor dictated to."
Social media users have also revealed the extent to which Peng is being censored in China. In one post, a Twitter user claimed his girlfriend’s Weibo account had been suspended after she shared screenshots of the story in a private chat.
"My girlfriend's Weibo account got suspended today for sending screenshots of #PengShuai story. She sent screenshots, not text, and it's a private chat group of 6 people, still being caught.
"This means the censorship system can do OCR [Optical Character Recognition] now. That actually is pretty impressive."
The WTA has been praised for speaking out in support of Shuai, particularly given its significant investment in China, but there have been calls for the organisation to go one step further and cease operations in the country.
It is the first time such a sexual assault allegation has been made against one of China's senior political leaders.
Zhang served as China's vice-premier between 2013 and 2018 and was a close ally of President Xi Jinping.
Peng became doubles world number one in 2014, becoming the first Chinese tennis player to achieve this feat. She won Grand Slam doubles titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and French Open in 2014.
The star has also enjoyed a successful singles career, and was ranked as high as 14th in 2011. She reached the US Open semi-finals in 2014.
Peng last played in February 2020, reaching the semi-finals of the Qatar Open in Doha.News Now - Sport News