Chinese official media has broke its two-week silence on tennis star Peng Shuai's whereabouts, but her supporters were doubtful of attempts to deny her allegations of an affair with a former Communist Party leader.

CGTN, China's national broadcaster, carried a letter claimed to Peng on its Twitter account on Thursday.

“I am not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine,” the letter said, adding that her purported allegations of sexual assault were “not true.”

The issue hits China at a crucial time, as President Xi Jinping's government prepares to host athletes and dignitaries from all around the world at the Winter Olympics, which begin in February. Party factions are also jockeying for crucial positions ahead of next year's twice-decade party congress, where Xi is anticipated to win a record-breaking third term.

Peng's safety had been the subject of intense international pressure on China. Grand Slam champions Novak Djokovic, Naomi Osaka, and Chris Evert have all raised concern about her case this week, while WTA president Steve Simon has asked for an investigation into her allegations. He told the New York Times separately that if the organisation didn't get a good response, it may reassess its operations in China, which include 11 events.

"I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai truly wrote the email we got or believes what is being attributed to her," Simon said in a statement, dismissing the CGTN letter. Authorities released a confession from Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Simon Cheng after he was jailed in mainland China in 2019, which he later disavowed. China has a history of issuing coerced statements on behalf of detained individuals.

Peng fell silent after publishing a 1,500-character essay on China's Twitter-like Weibo earlier this month chronicling a tumultuous, decade-long sexual connection with former party No. 7 official Zhang Gaoli. The message and related conversation were removed from social media, and True Scoop News was unable to independently verify that it was written by her.

China's Ministry of Public Security and General Administration of Sport have yet to respond to Bloomberg's inquiries about Peng's case, and the country's Foreign Ministry has frequently avoided the topic. Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese government, reiterated Wednesday that he was ignorant of the situation and that it was not a diplomatic issue.

The letter was published by CGTN, China's international-facing English-language broadcaster, implying that it was written for a worldwide audience. While Chinese propaganda agencies generally struggle to communicate clearly with Western audiences, Mareike Ohlberg, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund's Asia Program, believes there is "something at play here.”

"These kinds of messages are meant to demonstrate dominance," Ohlberg wrote. "It's not meant to persuade people; it's meant to terrify and demonstrate the state's power.”

Xiaowen Liang, a Chinese feminist, activist, and lawyer living in New York, questioned why the case's details hadn't been made public in China, where Peng's Weibo account, which has roughly 570,000 followers, has had its comment feature disabled. "They recognise the seriousness of the situation, which is why they're censoring in such a severe way," Liang added of the Chinese authorities.

China's Communist Party bans cadres from having extramarital affairs, and the country's anti-corruption commission frequently uses such conduct when accusing senior officials of corruption. The matter is made even more contentious by questions about whether Peng was abused in the relationship.

China has attempted to contain the #MeToo controversy within its borders. A former intern at state broadcaster CCTV said her social media profiles were suspended earlier this year after she lost her civil suit against a TV personality she accused of sexual assault.

Despite the difficulties women in China experience in having sexual misconduct allegations heard, Liang said the #MeToo movement had "inspired and empowered" them.

"You can censor one, but the next day someone else speaks up," she explained.

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