Athlete’s sexual assault claims and disappearance from public eye could be a bigger challenge for Chinese government.
Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai’s video call with the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) does not address or alleviate the Women’s Tennis Association’s (WTA) concern about her wellbeing, the association said.
A WTA spokeswoman said in an email on Monday that seeing Peng, a former doubles world number one, in recent videos was positive but that concerns remained about the star’s wellbeing and whether she was being censored or coerced.
Asked about the call with the IOC, the WTA spokeswoman said: “This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern.”
The IOC had said in a statement that Peng held a 30-minute call with its president, Thomas Bach, on Sunday, during which she said she was safe and well at home in Beijing and wanted to have her privacy respected for now.
Peng’s whereabouts became a matter of international concern nearly three weeks ago after she alleged that China’s former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted her.
On November 2, Peng posted on Chinese social media that Zhang had coerced her into sex and they later had an on-off consensual relationship. The post was deleted about half an hour after it was posted.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, when asked at a regular briefing on Monday about the concerns, said it was not a foreign ministry matter but noted that Peng had recently attended some public activities.
She did appear at a dinner with friends on Saturday and a children’s tennis tournament in Beijing on Sunday, photographs and videos published by Chinese state media journalists and by the tournament’s organisers show. But they have done little to quell concerns.
Global rights groups and others have called for a boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing over China’s human rights record. The WTA has also threatened to pull tournaments out of China over the matter.
Hu Xijin, the editor of state-owned newspaper Global Times who has in recent days posted videos and photographs of Peng in Beijing, said on Twitter on Monday that her appearance should be enough to ease worries of “those who truly care about (the) safety of Peng Shuai.
“But for those aiming to attack China’s system and boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics, facts, no matter how many, don’t work for them,” he said.
For those who truly care about safety of Peng Shuai, her appearances of these days are enough to relieve them or eliminate most of their worries. But for those aiming to attack China’s system and boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics, facts, no matter how many, don’t work for them.
— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) November 22, 2021
Neither Zhang nor the Chinese government has commented on Peng’s allegations. China’s State Council Information Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent on Monday.
The United States and Britain have called for China to provide proof of Peng’s whereabouts and France’s foreign minister said on Sunday that Chinese authorities should let Peng speak publicly.
“I’m expecting only one thing: that she speaks,” Jean-Yves Le Drian told LCI television, adding that there could be unspecified diplomatic consequences if China did not clear up the situation. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the IOC’s statement.
Current and former tennis players, including Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Billie Jean King, have also joined the calls seeking to confirm she was safe, using the social media hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai?
Men’s singles world No.1 Novak Djokovic said it would be strange to hold tournaments in China unless the “horrific” situation was resolved.
The topic has been blocked from discussion on China’s heavily censored internet and the comments sections on all remaining posts on Peng’s official Weibo account, and on numerous old posts by users about her, have been locked.
Some Weibo users have found ways around the censors by leaving comments on accounts belonging to foreign tennis players or sports commentators. While a number expressed relief to see her reappear on the weekend, others said they were sceptical.
“I hope it’s not staged,” said one.