International officials and supporters continue to desperately press for proof that China’s popular tennis superstar Peng Shuai is safe after she dropped from sight early this month when she accused a former member of the Chinese government of sexual assault.
The fear is that a high-profile sports star is being held against her will by the government for speaking out about an assault by a powerful man.
A brief video of a woman who appeared to be Peng released Saturday by China was insufficient to alleviate fears about her safety, said the head of the Women’s Tennis Association. Chinese state media has since released a new series of short videos showing Peng at a tennis event, but with similarly little clarity on Peng’s wellbeing.
“It remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own without coercion or external interference,” WTA CEO Steve Simon said in a statement.
The United Nations on Friday called for proof of Peng’s whereabouts, and the WTA is threatening to cut ties with the nation.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the Biden administration is “deeply concerned” about Peng.
Serena Williams joined other international tennis stars on Thursday to speak out for her.
“I hope she is safe,” Williams wrote on Twitter. “This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.”
Peng accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her into sex at his home, according to screenshots of a since-deleted social media post from Nov. 2. The post was deleted by Chinese censors within 30 minutes of its posting. Peng dropped from sight the same day.
The Chinese government has yet to even acknowledge publicly that the accusations were made.
Earlier this week, the Chinese state broadcaster released a highly suspect email, purportedly sent to Simon from Peng, which walked back her allegations.
UN Human Rights spokesperson Liz Throssell told reporters Friday that it’s “important to have proof of [Peng’s] whereabouts and wellbeing — and we would urge that there be an investigation with full transparency into her allegations of sexual assault.”
WTA’s Simon told CNN Thursday that he is prepared to forego hundreds of millions of dollars in business in China if Peng is not fully accounted for and her allegations are not investigated.
“Women need to be respected, not censored,” he said.
The Chinese Tennis Association has insisted to WTA officials that Peng is unharmed, according to Simon. But it has been impossible to reach her, he noted.
Simon believes the email revealed on state TV was fake. He called it a “staged statement of some type,” and told CNN that he hadn’t received any reply from Peng after immediately writing back to the email address.
The email “only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” Simon said in a statement. “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her … we won’t be comfortable until we have a chance to speak with her.”
A journalist for the state broadcaster on Friday also shared photos of Peng that she had ostensibly posted on a social media, but that could not immediately be confirmed.
The scandal could have serious repercussions for China, which is set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in February. There was already talk of a boycott due to China’s human rights abuses.
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