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Peng Shuai: where is China’s tennis star?

Global concern for sports champion who accused former minister of sexual assault

Fears remain for Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai even after she claimed to be safe and well during a video call yesterday with the International Olympic Committee.

The sports champion, who has won two Grand Slam women’s doubles trophies, disappeared earlier this month after making sexual assault allegations against a retired senior Chinese minister.

The allegations

In a post on Chinese social media in November, Peng publicly accused former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. She said that the senior Communist Party official had “forced” her to have sexual relations with him.

Addressing the 75-year-old retired politician, who was a close ally of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Peng described what she said happened after she visited his home to play tennis. “That afternoon I didn’t give my consent and couldn’t stop crying,” wrote Peng, 35. “You brought me to your house and forced me and you to have relations.”

She acknowledged that her claims could not be proved, however, writing: “I have no evidence… there is no audio record, no video record, only my distorted but very real experience.”

The post – which was removed from the social media site, Weibo, within minutes – marked the first time that such a claim had been made against one of China’s senior political leaders. What happened next caused concern worldwide.

The disappearance

The disappearance of Peng shortly after she made the allegation triggered widespread concern, “with international sports stars and governments calling on China to provide proof that she was safe”, said the BBC. The UK Foreign Office asked Beijing to “urgently provide verifiable evidence of her safety and whereabouts”.

That request was echoed by the UN and by other tennis players, including Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka.

The return

As global pressure piled on, disputed evidence of Peng’s well-being began to emerge.

State-run CGTN last week published a screenshot on Twitter of what appeared to be an email sent by Peng to the World Tennis Association. The email said that her earlier accusations were “not true” and that she was “resting at home and everything is fine”.

But doubts were flagged about the “awkward language and the cursor visible in the screenshot”, The Guardian reported.

On Saturday, images were posted on social media that “supposedly show Peng having dinner with her coach and friends in Beijing”, said Sky News.

And on Sunday, Chinese state media released a video that appeared to show the player being introduced at a youth tennis match in Beijing. A subsequent clip of Peng signing tennis balls for children emerged from other state media outlets later in the day.

Amid suspicion over the authenticity of the images and videos, Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of state-run tabloid the Global Times, wrote on Twitter: “Those who suspect Peng Shuai is under duress, how dark they must be inside.”

Hours later, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), spoke to Peng in a 30-minute video call that was also attended by Chinese sports official Li Lingwei and the chair of the Athletes’ Commission, Emma Terho.

In a statement, the committee said that Peng “explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time”.

According to the IOC, she accepted an invitation to have dinner with the three officials in January, ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics.

The concerns

The “apparent propaganda push” has done little to lessen the “firestorm of global concern for Peng”, said CNN.

A spokesperson for the Women’s Tennis Association said the video call with the IOC did not “alleviate or address” its concerns about her “well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion”.

“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 spokesperson added.

Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “What we have here is essentially a state-controlled narrative – only the government and its affiliated media are generating and distributing the content about Peng’s story.”

Nathan Law, a pro-democracy dissident who fled last year from Hong Kong to London, has argued the email in which Peng appeared to withdraw her abuse allegations had “all the hallmarks of a forced confession, a favoured tool of the Chinese authorities”, The Telegraph reported.

Law said: “Whenever a scandal is revealed, Chinese authorities silence or attack the victim.”

Other experts told the newspaper that Peng might have been abducted into the government’s programme of “enforced disappearances”, known officially as RSDL – Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location.

People who have criticised the Beijing regime reportedly often vanish “for several months, while they are interrogated in a nondescript government building”. They then “re-emerge in society with an outwardly different personality, their plucky mode of resistance replaced by a supine deference to Beijing authorities”.

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