Latest Peng Shuai images do little to ease concerns about safety

Video footage and photos of the tennis star Peng Shuai posted by China’s state media have done little to ease international demands for assurances that the 35-year-old is free and not under threat.

Peng had not been seen or heard from in more than two weeks since she accused the country’s former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her. The allegations, which she made on the Chinese social media site Weibo, were quickly deleted from the platform. Her silence, as well as blanket censorship inside China of her accusations have prompted calls across the world for information on her whereabouts and wellbeing, including threats by the WTA to pull all its tennis tournaments that are scheduled to be held in China.

On Sunday Hu Xijin, the editor of the state tabloid the Global Times, posted video of Peng attending a junior tennis tournament where she waved at the crowd. Hu said the footage was from the opening ceremony of a final in Beijing on Sunday.

A further clip of Peng signing tennis balls for children as “a way of inspiring more kids to play tennis” emerged from other state media outlets. It followed earlier footage released by Hu that showed Peng eating at a Beijing restaurant. The clip appeared staged, with people at the table carefully specifying the day’s date being 20 November.

Other photographs of the former world No 1 doubles player at the tennis match were published on the WeChat page of the China Open tournament, reported Reuters, which said it could not verify them. On Friday, images of a smiling Peng emerged on a Chinese state-affiliated Twitter account. The authenticity of the four undated photographs also could not be verified.

The rush of videos and photographs were presented as evidence that she was safe and not under duress. But without any sign of Peng being able to speak freely or the WTA being able to contact her, the images were largely dismissed.

A spokesperson for the tennis body said the latest footage was “insufficient” and still did not address its concerns. Responding to the restaurant video, Steve Simon, the head of the WTA, said: “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.”

Hu is one of the only Chinese state voices to have publicly spoken on Peng, but he kept his comments to English-language posts on Twitter and does not mention any specifics. On Friday, he referred to her allegations as “the things people talk about”, while on Saturday he claimed Peng was at home “freely” and did not want to be disturbed.

“She will show up in public and participate in some activities soon,” he added.

The United Nations,the US and UK are among those to have demanded China provide “verifiable evidence” of Peng’s whereabouts and wellbeing. On Sunday, France added to the chorus, its foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, called on Beijing to let her speak publicly to clarify her situation and warned that there could be diplomatic consequences if this did not happened.

The global campaign over Peng’s treatment has escalated, and has raised questions about sport’s balancing act between catering to the Chinese market and human rights advocacy.

The WTA has been the most vocal in its support for Peng, saying it is willing to jeopardise its lucrative deals with China to secure her safety as well as an investigation into her accusations. On Saturday the chair of the ATP, Andrea Gaudenzi, said the latest developments were deeply unsettling, and the issue was “bigger than tennis”. The ATP has not made any commercial threats.

Carig Tiley, director of the Australian Open, said it was “using every possible channel” to ensure Peng’s safety and had “been working behind the scenes to find out and get more clarity”.

International tennis stars have also called for answers, including Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Martin Navratilova, Novak Djokovic, Naomi Osaka, and Andy Murray.

It has also added to pressure on Olympic authorities, teams and sponsors before the Beijing Winter Games in February. The International Olympics Committee has instead referred to “quiet diplomacy”.

Peng is one of China’s most recognisable sporting stars and has been lauded by the government. Now, she is also the latest and most high-profile #MeToo case in a country where the movement has struggled to gain traction.

The Chinese government has a long history of disappearing and detaining those who speak out against the state. Last week, the state broadcaster CGTN tweeted a block of text it claimed was an email Peng sent to the head of the WTA. But the text was widely regarded as faked or potentially forced, as there was no evidence she had sent it herself and the language of it emulated previous forced confessions broadcast by CGTN.

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