Concerns mount over Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai
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Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player believed to have been missing for almost three weeks, spoke to the president of the International Olympic Committee in a video call on Sunday (November 21). The former doubles No 1 had not been seen or heard from since accusing China’s former vice premier of sexual assault on November 2. However, the WTA chief continues to remain concerned for her safety and freedom.
On November 2, Peng took to Weibo to accuse China’s former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual abuse, also detailing a consensual on-off affair with the now-retired politician, dating back to 2011.
The post was removed within half an hour, while Zhang has not responded to the claims, though a spokesperson for Beijing’s foreign ministry denied all knowledge of the allegations when asked about the subject, saying: “I have not heard of it and it is not a diplomatic question.”
The Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion had not been seen or heard from since making the allegations against Zhang, who served on China’s top ruling council, the Politburo Standing Committee, between 2012 and 2017, with the WTA, United Nations and White House among the bodies calling for verification of Peng’s safety and whereabouts, as well as an investigation into her allegations.
In recent days, Chinese state-affiliated media has shared photos and videos of Peng, alleging they were current images which confirmed that the tennis player was safe and well.
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A statement allegedly written by Peng claiming the allegations were fake and saying she was safe and resting at home was released by state media on Wednesday (November 17), with photos she allegedly sent to a friend via WeChat showing her smiling alongside a grey cat and some soft toys released on Friday (November 19), and a video showing Peng with her coach and friends out for dinner released on Saturday (November 20).
WTA CEO and Chairman Steve Simon has continued to raise concerns for the tennis player’s safety and freedom, saying he had “a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email [he] received or believes what is being attributed to her.”
On Saturday, the WTA chief also shared his doubts following the release of footage showing Peng out for dinner, saying: “I am glad to see the videos released by China state-run media that appear to show Peng Shuai at a restaurant in Beijing.
“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.
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“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.”
Now, the International Olympic Committee has confirmed that President Thomas Bach spoke to the former singles world No 14 in a half-hour video call on Sunday (November 21), shortly after Peng was seen at a Chinese youth tennis tournament.
In a statement on Sunday, the IOC wrote: “At the beginning of the 30-minute call, Peng Shuai thanked the IOC for its concern about her well-being. She explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time. That is why she prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now. Nevertheless, she will continue to be involved in tennis, the sport she loves so much.”
Chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, Emma Terho was also in the call, and said: “I was relieved to see that Peng Shuai was doing fine, which was our main concern. She appeared to be relaxed. I offered her our support and to stay in touch at any time of her convenience, which she obviously appreciated.”
The IOC’s statement also says that President Bach invited Peng Shuai to go for dinner in January, with himself, Emma Tehro and IOC Member in China Li Lingwei when he arrives in Beijing, which she “gladly accepted”.
However, the statement makes no reference to the sexual assault allegations detailed by Peng in her Weibo post on November 2.
WTA Chairman Simon is yet to respond to the latest update on Peng’s whereabouts, but in a letter he wrote to the Chinese Ambassador to the United States on Friday, he doubled-down on his demands for verifiable proof Peng was free, and for a full and fair investigation into her sexual assault allegations against Zhang.
“First, there needs to be independent and verifiable confirmation that Peng Shuai is safe. So that her fellow players and fans everywhere can know she is safe, I request she be allowed to leave the country or speak live via teleconference with me with no one else present, unless it is with Peng’s permission,” he wrote.
“Second, the accusation of sexual assault is serious. As the leader of a women’s tennis organization, I think it is vital to see that this allegation is investigated fairly, fully, transparently and without censorship. Anything less would be a setback for the rights of women, not to mention the cause of justice.”
The women’s tour CEO has also continued to threaten to remove WTA tournaments from China, including the prestigious year-end finals in Shenzhen.
He reiterated his threat in the letter, adding: “If our two requests are not honored, we will have no choice but to seriously consider whether we can play in China again. If Peng Shuai is not safe, free to move about, or to speak freely, we have grave concerns that none of our players will be safe in China. And if Peng Shuai’s accusation is not properly investigated, it would cause deep concern throughout the WTA. Simply put, the WTA is at a crossroads in China.”
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