BEIJING (REUTERS, AFP) - Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai has been staying at home “freely” and will make a public appearance “soon”, Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, a prominent state-media journalist, said on Saturday (Nov 20).
Former doubles world number one Peng has not been seen or heard from publicly since she said on Chinese social media on Nov 2 that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli coerced her into sex and they later had an on-off consensual 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 the past few days, she stayed in her own home freely and she didn’t want to be disturbed. She will show up in public and participate in some activities soon,” Hu wrote on Twitter.
The Global Times is published by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party.
Hu said he had confirmed through his sources that photos shared on Twitter by a journalist working for Chinese state media, purportedly showing Peng at home, depicted her “current state”.
He also posted a video later on Saturday that appeared to show Peng at a restaurant.
Reuters was not able to verify the authenticity of the pictures or video independently.
“I am glad to see the videos released by China state-run media that appear to show Peng Shuai at a restaurant in Beijing,” Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) chairman Steve Simon said in a statement.
“While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference. This video alone is insufficient.
“As I have stated from the beginning, I remain concerned about Peng Shuai’s health and safety and that the allegation of sexual assault is being censored and swept under the rug. I have been clear about what needs to happen and our relationship with China is at a crossroads.”
Late on Friday, the Twitter account @shen_shiwei, labelled “Chinese state-affiliated media” by the social network, had posted four undated images of Peng.
It said the pictures, which could not be independently verified by Reuters or AFP, were shared on Peng’s WeChat Moments, a function often restricted to friends, to wish her followers a “good weekend”.
One photo shows the smiling player with a cat in her arms, with stuffed animals, a trophy, a Chinese flag and certificates visible in the background.
Another shot shows a selfie of Peng with a toy from the children’s animation Kung Fu Panda, with an image of Winnie the Pooh in the background. The children’s character is often censored online in China as critics say Chinese leader Xi Jinping resembles the cartoon.
Twitter is blocked in China and only people with a VPN-type workaround can access it. However, many Chinese diplomats and official state media have accounts to defend China’s point of view.
Amid growing concern about her whereabouts, the WTA has threatened to pull tournaments out of China and the men’s ATP has demanded clarity from the Chinese authorities. The United States has called for proof of Peng’s whereabouts and safety.
The International Olympic Committee could be pushed into taking a hard line with the 2022 Beijing Olympic hosts, senior IOC member Dick Pound has told Reuters.
Thus far the IOC has declined to comment, saying it believed “quiet diplomacy” offered the best opportunity for a solution.
The IOC’s Athletes Commission, made up of athletes elected by their peers, said it was “very concerned” for Peng and hoped contact with her and fellow athletes could be established soon.
Wimbledon organisers the All England Lawn Tennis Club said in a statement: “We are united with the rest of tennis in the need to understand that Peng Shuai is safe. We have been working in support of the WTA’s efforts to establish her safety through our relationships behind the scenes.”
Swiss tennis great Roger Federer also joined the chorus of athletes expressing concern for Peng.
“She was the number one (doubles player) in the world, but regardless of that I hope she is well,” Federer told Sky Sports Italy.
“The whole tennis family is with her. I am connected to all players. I hope good news will come soon from her.”