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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Missing Chinese tennis star is seen in public for first time in 19 days


Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, whose whereabouts have been a matter of international concern for weeks, attended a tennis tournament in Beijing on Sunday, according to official photos published by the tournament organized by China Open.

Peng, 35, can be seen among guests at the Fila Kids Junior Tennis Challenger Finals, dressed in a dark blue jacket and white trousers, according to the pictures published on the event’s official WeChat page.

The former doubles world number had not been seen or heard from publicly since she said on Chinese social media on November 2 that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, now in his 70s, had ‘forced’ her into sex during a long-term on-off relationship. 

Neither Zhang nor the Chinese government have commented on her allegation. Peng’s social media post was quickly deleted and the topic has been blocked from discussion on China’s heavily censored internet. 

In response to her disappearance, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) threatened to pull tournaments from China, which would be costly for the country’s economy. The United States and Britain have called for evidence of Peng’s whereabouts and safety. 

The photographs and video footage of Peng that emerged on Sunday remain “insufficient” and do not address the WTA’s concerns, a spokesperson for the group told Reuters by email.

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai (second left), whose whereabouts have been a matter of international concern for weeks, attended a tennis tournament in Beijing on Sunday, according to official photos published by the tournament organized by China Open

Peng (second left) can be seen among guests at the Fila Kids Junior Tennis Challenger Finals, dressed in a dark blue jacket and white trousers, according to the pictures published on the event's official WeChat page

Peng (second left) can be seen among guests at the Fila Kids Junior Tennis Challenger Finals, dressed in a dark blue jacket and white trousers, according to the pictures published on the event’s official WeChat page

Photographs posted online by a reporter working with CGTN, the international wing of China's state broadcaster, purportedly show the 35-year-old tennis ace posing but cannot be verified

Photographs posted online by a reporter working with CGTN, the international wing of China’s state broadcaster, purportedly show the 35-year-old tennis ace posing but cannot be verified

The U.S. and British embassies in Beijing did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment on her reappearance. 

The issue of Peng’s safety and whereabouts has emerged as China prepares to host the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February amid calls from global rights groups and others for a boycott over its human rights record.

Hu Xijin, the editor of state-backed newspaper Global Times, tweeted Peng’s appearance at the tournament earlier on Sunday. The Global Times is published by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party. 

Videos posted by Hu and a Global Times reporter showed her smiling, waving and signing autographs for children.

 

Peng Shuai (second left) showed up at the opening ceremony of a teenager tennis match final in Beijing on Sunday morning

Peng Shuai (second left) showed up at the opening ceremony of a teenager tennis match final in Beijing on Sunday morning

The 37-second video posted appears to show Peng standing in a row of people being introduced to the audience. An announcer says, ‘Two-time Grand Slam champion, former world number one in woman’s doubles – Peng Shuai!’ She waves, smiling, and acknowledges applause.

Global Times chief reporter Chen Qingqing posted a 31-second video, apparently from the same event. Peng appears to sign oversized tennis balls for children and pose with them for pictures. 

Reuters was not able to independently verify the authenticity of the images, which were both credited to Global Times staffer Cui Meng. 

A photo of Peng at the Fila tournament was also posted on Twitter by Ding Li, a senior executive of Global D-Sports, a company which corporate information app Tianyancha says organises sport events and manages athletes. 

Ding, who said he was a long-time friend of Peng’s, said her phone is always switched on, so the WTA could just call her. WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon, however, told Time magazine last week that the organisation had tried to contact her through various means.

Ding said Peng was not accepting foreign media interviews as she received many calls after Simon had sent an email to her assistant that contained her contact information, and copied a number of people in his message.

The WTA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on that email. Twitter is blocked in China.

On Saturday night, Peng apparently visited a popular restaurant in downtown Beijing for a meal Ding attended, according to photos he posted on Twitter. Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the state-backed Global Times reposted a video of the outing, which a restaurant manager confirmed to Reuters on Sunday.

Seven people including Peng were at the Sichuanese restaurant, said the manager, Zhou Hongmei, adding that they ate in a private room and were joined by the restaurant’s owner.

“It was crowded at the restaurant as usual,” Zhou said, showing a bill that included noodles and bamboo shoots. “They didn’t have much. I think they mostly chatted.”

Searches on Chinese platforms for social media posts on Peng’s allegations continued to yield no results on Sunday. On some video-sharing websites like Bilibili, Peng’s name was also not found in searches. Some old videos featuring Peng could still be found, but access to their comments sections was locked.

 

The unknown whereabouts of Peng prompted the U.S. and the UN to demand proof of her location as concerns rose for the tennis star.    

White House press secretary Jen Psaki had said President Joe Biden‘s administration wanted China to ‘provide independent, verifiable proof’ of Peng’s whereabouts and expressed ‘deep concern’ about the former world top-ranked doubles player.

The US is also considering a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics due to be held in Beijing in February while Dick Pound, a member of the International Olympic Committee has said they have not ruled out stopping the games due to China’s human rights record. 

The United Nations insisted on a fully transparent investigation into the claims made by Peng against Communist Party grandee Zhang Gaoli – the first time China’s #MeToo movement has touched the highest echelons of the country’s politics. 

‘It would be important to have proof of her whereabouts and well-being,’ Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights Office, told reporters in Geneva.

‘We are calling for an investigation with full transparency into her allegation of sexual assault.’

Peng Shuai

Peng Shuai

Peng Shuai, 35, a Chinese tennis star, has not been seen since November 2 when she posted on social media accusing a senior Communist official of sexual abuse

On Friday, photos of a smiling Peng emerged on a Chinese state media-affiliated social media account, but their authenticity could not be verified and the user did not respond to request for comment. 

Experts questioned the authenticity of the newly released photos that appeared to show the missing tennis star smiling as she poses for the camera behind a sea of children’s toys.

Three photographs posted online by a reporter working with CGTN, the international wing of China‘s state broadcaster, purportedly show the 35-year-old tennis ace posing with a grey cat while surrounded by a bed of soft toys.

Shen Shiwei, the man who shared the pictures to Twitter on Friday, said the images had been posted on Shuai’s WeChat messenger, but experts have continued to express doubts over the veracity of the pictures.

Fears continue to mount for Shuai, once ranked as the top female double’s player in the world, who has not been seen since accusing the country’s former vice premier of rape on November 2.  

Friday marked the second time in as many days that the Chinese-state broadcaster attempted to alleviate concern over the missing tennis star, after sharing an email claiming to have been written Shuai in which she said she was ‘resting at home’.

Andy Murray and Serena Williams have become the latest high-profile names to join the campaign to find missing tennis star Peng Shuai in the wake of her sexual assault allegations.

Fears mount for Peng Shuai, once ranked as the top female double's player in the world, who has not been seen since accusing the country's former vice premier of rape on November 2

Fears mount for Peng Shuai, once ranked as the top female double’s player in the world, who has not been seen since accusing the country’s former vice premier of rape on November 2

Peng first made headlines on November 2 when she uploaded a lengthy post to her personal Weibo account – China’s version of Facebook – accusing Zhang of coercing her into sex during a years-long affair.  

In the post, Peng revealed that she and Zhang – who is married – were involved in an on-off affair dating back to 2011 when the pair met in the port city of Tianjin, where Zhang was premier at the time.

The post details how Peng slept with Zhang once that year, and possibly a second time before he was promoted to the country’s powerful political bureau and cut all ties with her.

But he allegedly rekindled the affair in 2018 after his retirement from politics, inviting Peng for dinner with his wife after which he pressured her into sex. 

Peng recalls ‘crying’ and refusing Zhang’s advances, before eventually relenting. 

That kicked off a three-year affair, Peng alleged, which she described as ‘unpleasant’.

In the post, she admits to having ‘no evidence’ that the affair ever took place because Zhang insisted on keeping it a total secret.

Her post concluded: ‘You’ve said you are not afraid. 

‘But even as an egg hurled at a rock, a moth to a flame for self-destruction, I will speak the truth with you.’

It is not clear why she choose to reveal the affair now. 

Peng Shuai

Zhang Gaoli

Tennis star Peng Shuai accused Zhang Gaoli, Former Vice Premier of the People’s Republic of China, of rape two weeks ago and has not been seen since

Zhang was a vice-premier in Beijing and served on the ruling party’s powerful seven-member standing committee of the political bureau.

The post was quickly deleted from her verified account on Weibo within 20 minutes, but screenshots of the explosive accusation quickly spread despite the topic being blocked from discussion on China’s heavily censored internet. 

23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, 40, publicly called on the authorities to launch an investigation into Shuai’s disappearance and urged those involved to ‘not stay silent’. 

Andy Murray then weighed in on the uncomfortable situation himself, noting: ‘Female tennis player Peng Shuai whereabouts currently unknown after making sexual abuse allegations against Chinese government official. 

‘This speech gives us a reminder and some hope that things can change in the future #WhereIsPengShuai’  

Meanwhile, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) said it was prepared to pull its tournaments out of China if they were not satisfied with the response to her sexual assault allegation.

Fears grew for her safety Wednesday as Chinese state media published what they claimed was an email written by her saying 'I've just been resting at home and everything is fine'

Fears grew for her safety Wednesday as Chinese state media published what they claimed was an email written by her saying ‘I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine’

Social media users were quick to point out oddities with the 'email', including that it is addressed to 'everyone' despite allegedly being a private message and that a typing cursor appears to be flashing in the middle of the message - suggesting it is open in a word processor

Social media users were quick to point out oddities with the ’email’, including that it is addressed to ‘everyone’ despite allegedly being a private message and that a typing cursor appears to be flashing in the middle of the message – suggesting it is open in a word processor

It comes after Chinese state media published an English-language email they claimed was written by Peng which said: ‘I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.’ 

Steve Simon, the head of the Women’s Tennis Association, said he has a ‘hard time believing’ that Peng wrote the email herself and it ‘only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.’

Simon said that nobody from the WTA has been in direct contact with Peng since she accused 75-year-old Communist party official Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex on Chinese social media two weeks ago. 

On Wednesday, Simon cast doubt on an email, which was also released by a Chinese state media outlet on Twitter, purporting to be from Peng and denying the allegations of sexual assault.

‘I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,’ he said.

By Friday, the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai had racked up over 32 million mentions on Facebook’s Instagram, which is also blocked in China, as well as Twitter, according to hashtag analysis website BrandMentions.

Earlier, China’s Foreign Ministry has said it was not aware of the controversy surrounding Peng, who disappeared after accusing a former top official of sexually abusing her.

Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters that the matter was ‘not a diplomatic question and I’m not aware of the situation’.

The ministry has consistently disavowed knowledge of the issue since it broke as a major global story earlier this week.

Despite this, international pressure has been growing to uncover the truth about Peng’s whereabouts, with 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, 40, urging an investigation to be launched.

Peng, 35, is a former top ranked player in women’s doubles who won titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.

She also participated in three Olympics, making her disappearance all the more prominent with Beijing set to host the Winter Games starting on February 4. 

Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office in Geneva, said Friday it was calling for ‘an investigation with full transparency into her allegation of sexual assault.’ 

‘And I think we would say that that should be the case into all allegations of sexual assault. It is really important to ensure accountability, to ensure justice for the victims,’ she said. 



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