Peng Shuai appears at China tennis event, WTA still concerned

SHANGHAI (REUTERS) - Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, whose whereabouts have been a matter of international concern for weeks, attended a tennis tournament in Beijing on Sunday (Nov 21), according to official photos published by the tournament organised by China Open.

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

The former doubles world number one had not been seen or heard from publicly since she said on Chinese social media on Nov 2 that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli had coerced her into sex and they later had an on-off consensual relationship.

Neither Mr Zhang nor the Chinese government have commented on her allegation.

Ms Peng's social media post was quickly deleted and the topic has been blocked from discussion on China's heavily censored Internet.

World tennis bodies have expressed concern, with the Women's Tennis Association threatening to pull tournaments out of China.

The United States and Britain have called for evidence of Ms Peng's whereabouts and safety.

Britain's Foreign Office said in a statement on Saturday: "The Chinese authorities should urgently provide verifiable evidence of her safety and whereabouts.

"Everyone should be allowed to speak out without fear of repercussions. All reports of sexual assault, anywhere in the world, should be investigated."

The photographs and video footage of Ms Peng that emerged on Sunday remain "insufficient" and do not address the WTA’s concerns, a spokesman for the group told Reuters by e-mail. 

The US and British embassies in Beijing did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment on Ms Peng’s Sunday appearance in the Chinese capital. 

The issue of Ms 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. 

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

Mr Ding, who told Reuters he was a long-time friend of Ms Peng’s, said her phone is always switched on, so the WTA could just call her.

WTA chairman and chief executive Steve Simon, however, told Time magazine last week that the organisation had tried to contact her through various means. 

Mr Ding said Ms Peng was not accepting foreign media interviews as she received many calls after Mr Simon had sent an e-mail 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 e-mail. Twitter is blocked in China. 

On Saturday night, Ms Peng also visited a popular restaurant in downtown Beijing for a meal Mr Ding attended, according to photos he posted on Twitter. 

Mr 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 Ms Peng, were at the Sichuanese restaurant, said 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," the manager said, showing a bill that included noodles and bamboo shoots. "They didn’t have much. I think they mostly chatted." 

Searches for Ms Peng’s name on popular Chinese microblog Weibo continued to yield no results on Sunday.

On some video-sharing websites like Bilibili, Ms Peng’s name was also not found in searches. Some old videos featuring Ms Peng could still be found, but access to their comments sections was locked. 

Chinese state media outlet CGTN on Wednesday released what it said was an e-mail Ms Peng had sent to WTA's Mr Simon, in which she said the allegation of assault was untrue.

Mr Simon said at the time he had a hard time believing that Ms Peng herself had written the e-mail.

Mr Hu of Global Times, tweeted Ms 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 Mr Hu and a Global Times reporter showed her smiling, waving and signing autographs for children.  

The 37-second video Mr Hu posted appears to show Ms 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.

Ms 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.