Chinese foreign ministry spokesman claims he hasn't heard about tennis star's sexual assault allegations

But everyone else has heard about it.

Jean Chien Tay | November 17, 2021, 04:25 PM

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Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian claimed he did not hear of China tennis star Peng Shuai's sexual assault allegations against former vice premier Zhang Gaoli, AFP reported.

Zhao made his comments a day after the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) called for China to investigate the issue.

Responding to media queries on Nov. 15, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson denied knowledge of "the issue", and did not offer further comments after saying that it was "not a diplomatic question".

News of the explosive allegations first broke on the night of Nov. 2, after the 35-year-old Peng took to Chinese social media site Weibo to accuse Zhang of sexually assaulting her and pressuring her to have an affair with him.

The tennis star claimed that she was in an on-and-off extra marital relationship with the retired politician for years.

Zhang's listed age is either 74 or 75, based on his government profile.

Peng's allegations against Zhang, who is a former member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s politburo, was censored on Chinese social media site Weibo within minutes, according to NPR.

The politburo is China's top decision-making body.

According to Bloomberg, Chinese authorities have not commented on the case so far, and numerous media outlets have failed to contact Peng.

Peng has not been seen in public for days now, sparking concern over her safety.

Women's Tennis Association calls for action

In response to Peng's allegations, the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) -- the organising body of female professional tennis -- released a statement on Nov. 14 to seek "full, fair and transparent" investigation into the accusations.

The chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of WTA, Simon Steve said he expected the issue to be "handled properly", and demanded Peng's accusations to be treated with "utmost seriousness".

"Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored", he added.

Unable to reach Peng directly

Speaking to the New York Times (NYT), Simon said he had received confirmation from the Chinese Tennis Association and several other sources that Peng is safe and "not under any physical threat".

However, no one associated with the WTA, including officials and active players, have been able to reach Peng directly, according to Simon.

Although he reportedly acknowledged that the tennis organisation might have little leverage to influence the Chinese government, he stressed that they will not compromise on the matter of potential sexual assault, and might decide not to operate in China if there are no "appropriate results".

The WTA tour had previously increased their footprint in China, with a 10-year deal that began in 2019 to hold the tour finals in the city of Shenzhen.

According to Simon, Chinese organisers have doubled the event's prize money to US$14 million (S$18.96 million) and planned to invest over US$1 billion (S$1.35 billion) over the course of the deal.

However, the 2020 finals and most tournaments in China were cancelled due to the ongoing pandemic.

Men's tennis organisation backs WTA's call for investigation

Meanwhile, the men's professional tennis organisation -- the Association of Tennis Players (ATP) -- released a statement on Nov. 15 in support of the WTA's call for investigation into the matter.

ATP Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi said in the statement that the organisation will continue to monitor the situation closely.

Tennis players concerned and shocked

Taking to Twitter, the American former world number one player Chris Evert expressed her concern for Peng's safety.

Evert said that she had known Peng since the Chinese player was only 14 years old, and found the accusations "very disturbing".

Alizé Cornet, a French professional player and former world number 11, tweeted, "Let's not be silent", on Nov. 14, along with the hashtag "Where is Peng Shuai".

The current men's number one, Novak Djokovic, described the situation as terrible and expressed his shock over Peng's disappearance, according to AFP.

Mirrors handling of Chen Qiushi's disappearance

Zhao's claim of ignorance appears to mirror Cui Tiankai's method of handling media's queries over the disappearance of Chinese civilian journalist Chen Qiushi in 2020.

Cui was the former Chinese ambassador to the U.S.

Chen is a citizen journalist and former human rights lawyer who went to Wuhan, China, two years ago to document the situation soon after an outbreak of Covid-19 cases was reported there.

When asked by CBS News if the Chinese authorities had detained Chen, Cui told the journalist that he had never heard of Chen.

A month later, Cui repeated his claim that he had not heard of Chen when speaking to Axios.

"We have 1.4 billion people back in China. How can I learn everything about everybody?," he added.

Chen recently resurfaced after disappearing from public view for 601 days.

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Top image via Global Times & Xin Li/Getty Images