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Peng Shuai: who is Chinese tennis star, Zhang Gaoli - and why she said post has led to ‘huge misunderstanding’

The 35-year-old alleged on social media last year that she was assaulted by Zhang Gaoli, China’s former vice premier

Concerns remain for the welfare of a Chinese tennis player, despite her describing reports she accused a high-ranking Chinese official of sexual assault as a “huge misunderstanding”.

Former world doubles number one Peng Shuai repeated her denial the alleged incident ever took place.

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Concerns around the safety of the sportswoman were first raised in late 2021, when she had not been heard from since making allegations of sexual assault against China’s former vice-premier in a post on the social media platform Weibo.

The post was quickly removed, triggering mounting worry for Peng, with Naomi Osaka among those taking to social media to draw attention to the situation.

Here is everything you need to know about her.

What did Peng allege?

The 35-year-old alleged on social media that she was forced to have sex with Zhang Gaoli, China’s former vice premier, but the post was soon deleted.

Peng was not seen or heard of for a number of weeks before a letter purportedly from her appeared on Chinese state media, claiming that she had “just been resting at home and everything is fine”.

The letter was posted by the China Global Television Network Europe’s Twitter page, which the broadcaster claimed was sent from Shuai to Steve Simon, the chief executive of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA).

It 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 am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.”

But concerns remained, with fears that Peng was being forced to back down from her allegations by the state.

What did her letter say?

In an interview published on Monday with French newspaper L’Equipe, during which she was accompanied by Chinese Olympic Committee chief of staff Wang Kan who translated her responses, Peng insisted she had been unaware of the global concern.

In the interview, Peng said: “I never said anyone had sexually assaulted me in any way.

“There was a huge misunderstanding in the outside world following this post. I don’t want the meaning of this post to be twisted anymore. And I don’t want any further media hype around it.

“I never disappeared. Everyone could see me. I never disappeared. It’s just that many people, like my friends or people from the IOC messaged me, and it was simply impossible to answer so many messages. But I’ve been always in close contact with my close friends.”

Peng attended Monday’s (7 February) mixed curling match between China and Norway and, according to the IOC, stated her intention to attend more events at the Winter Olympics over the next two weeks.

Why are the WTA not satisfied?

The latest development is unlikely to satisfy the WTA and its head, who has been praised for his forceful stance on the situation.

Peng’s predicament has sparked a global call for transparency led by the WTA, which announced in December 2021 the suspension of all tournaments in China - the most lucrative market for women’s tennis - due to its dissatisfaction with the response to the allegation from the Chinese authorities.

Peng’s “allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship,” Simon said in a statement released last year.

“Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government,” he said. “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 communications, to no avail. Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source.

“The voices of women need to be heard and respected, not censored nor dictated to.”

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