Concerns remain for Chinese tennis star despite telling Olympics chief she is safe

The Women’s Tennis Association said on Monday it remained concerned about Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai despite a video call she had with the president of the International Olympic Committee.

Peng, a former prominent doubles player, has raised international concern since she disappeared from the public eye after accusing a former senior Chinese official of sexual assault. Photographs and videos showing Peng at a restaurant and children’s tennis tournament in Beijing, published by reporters from Chinese state media and tournament organizers over the weekend, did little to appease fears for his safety.

“It was good to see Peng Shuai in recent videos, but they do not alleviate or address the WTA’s concerns about his well-being and his ability to communicate without censorship or coercion,” a spokesperson for the WTA in an email to Reuters.

Peng Shuai of China serves to Maria Kirilenko of Russia during their women’s singles match at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 17, 2013.Toby Melville / Reuters

The spokesperson said that Peng’s appeal with the IOC “does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into his allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our concern. initial”.

Peng had met in a 30-minute video conference with IOC President Thomas Bach and two other IOC officials to discuss his security, the organization said on Sunday. It is not known when the call took place.

“She explained that she was fine and that she lived at her home in Beijing, but that she would like her privacy to be respected for the time being,” said the IOC. “That’s why she prefers to spend her time with her friends and family right now.”

Emma Terho, president of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, said Peng appeared “to be doing well” during the call.

“She seemed relaxed,” Terho said. “I offered her our support and to stay in touch at any time of her convenience, which she obviously appreciated.”

Tennis stars around the world have expressed concern for Peng over the past week, circulating the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai on social media. They feared for her safety after she alleged that Zhang Gaoli, a former deputy prime minister in his 60s, sexually assaulted her during an otherwise intermittent relationship while in office.

Peng made the accusation on November 2 in a post on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter. It was quickly deleted and the social media debate appeared to be called off by censors.

Zhang was once one of China’s most powerful officials under President Xi Jinping. He retired in 2018 and was not available to comment on the topic.

NBC News did not see the post until it was deleted from Peng’s account, which has more than half a million subscribers. It was not clear if she had deleted the post or if it had been deleted by Chinese censors.

Last week, Chinese State Television released a statement in English attributed to Peng who withdrew his accusation against Zhang.

Some of the biggest names in tennis, including Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, have sounded the alarm after noting that Peng had not been seen in public since making the allegations.

The White House is “deeply concerned about reports that Peng Shuai appears to have disappeared,” press secretary Jen Psaki said at a press briefing on Friday. The United Nations has also called for evidence of Peng’s whereabouts and well-being, as well as an investigation into his allegations of sexual assault.

A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry last week denied knowing about the outcry.

Steve Simon, president of the Women’s Tennis Association, or WTA, said last week that he allegedly received an email from Peng saying she was resting at home and not missing. But Simon questioned the authenticity of the email, saying he “repeatedly tried to reach her via many forms of communication, to no avail.”

“I find it hard to believe that Peng Shuai actually wrote down the email we received or believes what is attributed to him,” Simon said, adding that the world needed “independent and verifiable proof. that she is safe “.

In a separate statement after Chinese state media released the video purporting to show Peng at a restaurant in Beijing, Simon said the WTA’s relationship with China “is at a crossroads.”

“Although it is positive to see her, it is still unclear whether she is free and able to make decisions and act on her own, without coercion or outside interference,” he said. “This video alone is insufficient.”

Peng is one of the biggest stars of Chinese tennis in recent years, having won doubles titles at Wimbledon and Roland Garros in 2013 and 2014.

His situation highlights a growing problem for sports organizations trying to balance China’s vast business opportunities with concerns over Beijing’s widely criticized human rights and censorship record.

Simon told CNN last week that the WTA would consider removing tournaments worth tens of millions of dollars out of China unless Peng is taken into account and his allegations are investigated. thorough.

“It’s bigger than the business,” he said. “Women must be respected and not censored. “

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