A suspicious email reportedly posted to the Chinese government’s website purporting to be a conversation between a player and a Chinese sports minister has led to widespread speculation among the country’s media about Peng Shuai’s involvement.
The email, whose authenticity was disputed by Chinese news agency Xinhua and state-run newspaper Global Times, reportedly involves Peng, a 36-year-old Chinese tennis star, and Jun Guo, a sports official who was expelled from the Chinese government after a disappointing performance at the 2013 Guangzhou Open.
According to the Chinese reports, the email shows that both Peng and Guo were discussing a meeting between Peng and a United Nations official that would “discuss the environmental policies and man-made challenges related to air pollution.” The Post however did not report this specific meeting.
However, Peng’s agent has dismissed the email’s authenticity, with Reuters reporting that he claimed “the personal details of the player and the official, along with what they wrote in the email, were an obvious fabrication of their imaginations.”
The remarks by the agent, Peter Van Valkenburgh, came just days after internet surveillance expert Graham Cluley, of the British cybersecurity firm Sophos, wrote in a blog post that Chinese-language internet surveillance laws could have allowed the email to be sent without the reader’s knowledge.
“With what now seems to be an obvious effort to learn more about the workings of the world’s most populous country’s Internet surveillance system, it’s not hard to wonder whether any Chinese web users, rather than feeling duped by a faked email, believe it was actually sent by Peng Shuai and Jun Guo,” Cluley wrote.
“There is clearly far too much public, international and Chinese-language commentary on this incident to take it at face value. Therefore, on the basis of precedent, we can probably rule out that Peng has been arrested.”
The Malaysian court where Peng was scheduled to be brought in the first week of July found her in violation of the country’s sports codes of conduct after she allegedly skipped a drugs test during the second round of the 2015 Malaysia Open, on which she lost to Serena Williams.
Her lawyer has said Peng is a professional tennis player, not a drug smuggler and is committed to racing against the strict drug-testing rule.
Chinese officials have not commented on reports that Peng has been detained, and it’s not clear what charges she may face.
In a separate report, the Chinese-language website of the Hong Kong based newspaper South China Morning Post reported that a “victim of the same email” had filed a police report with another human resources department for the Institute of Intellectual Property in the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of State Security.
The publication also said the email has “lent credence to the rumors that the entire doping controversy involving Ms. Peng Shuai has been a case of industrial espionage.”
The report said there was no confirmation or denial from Chinese authorities on any incident involving an American acquaintance of the manager who sent the email, but that the person was believed to be a “Russian or Israeli” national.
The post said it was unclear whether the charge was brought by local authorities.
The story follows reports of a new Chinese law that makes it illegal to upload “defamatory information online.”