Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai reappears at public event in Beijing

Published November 21, 2021
In this file photo taken on January 16, 2017, China's Peng Shuai celebrates her win against Daria Kasatkina of Russia during their women's singles first round match on day one of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne. — AFP
In this file photo taken on January 16, 2017, China's Peng Shuai celebrates her win against Daria Kasatkina of Russia during their women's singles first round match on day one of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne. — AFP

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai appeared at a Beijing tennis tournament on Sunday, according to official event photos, after international pressure mounted for information about her well-being.

Peng can be seen in a navy sports jacket and white track pants at the Fila Kids Junior Tennis Challenger Finals, according to photos published on the official Weibo account of the China Open — her first public appearance since her sexual abuse accusations were widely censored on the Chinese internet.

The two-time Grand Slam doubles champion had not been seen publicly since alleging earlier this month that former vice premier Zhang Gaoli, now in his 70s, “forced” her into sex during an on-off relationship spanning several years.

Following a global outcry, including from tennis superstars and the United Nations, Chinese state media reporters have released a flurry of footage purporting to show all is well with Peng.

A video from the event, tweeted by Global Times newspaper editor Hu Xijin, shows Peng standing in a stadium among a group of guests whose names are announced to a smattering of applause.

A Global Times reporter tweeted another video showing Peng signing autographs for children at what appears to be the same stadium before posing for photos with them.

Hu also posted two other videos on Saturday, the first showing Peng walking into a restaurant wearing a coat, knit cap and face mask.

A visible sign says Beijing Yibin Guesthouse, a famous restaurant a stone's throw from Tiananmen Square, owned by the Sichuan local government.

In the second, Peng is maskless sitting at a table chatting with people over a meal.

AFP could not verify the authenticity of the videos.

Hu tweeted in English that the second video shows “Peng Shuai was having dinner with her coach and friends in a restaurant. The video content clearly shows they are shot on Saturday Beijing time.”

The conversation revolved around “tennis matches”.

A man sitting with Peng and two women said “tomorrow is November 20”.

But one of the women quickly corrects him, saying, “It is the 21st”, implying that the video was filmed on Saturday.

The chat appears to be staged. It was filmed in the evening hours with a mobile phone. Peng appears relaxed in the footage.

'Insufficient'

Peng's claims against Zhang were the first time China's #MeToo movement has touched the highest echelons of the ruling Communist Party.

They were quickly scrubbed from the Twitter-like Weibo platform, and concerns have grown for her safety since.

Of the restaurant videos, Women's Tennis Association (WTA) boss Steve Simon said he was glad to see the images but “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,” Simon said in a statement.

“I have been clear about what needs to happen and our relationship with China is at a crossroads.”

The WTA has threatened to end lucrative contracts with China unless it gets word of Peng's safety.

Chinese state-media journalists have released what they say is proof that all is well.

First, state-run CGTN last week tweeted a screenshot of what it said was an email from Peng to the WTA saying her accusations were not true and that “everything is fine”.

But doubts were flagged about the awkward language and a cursor visible in the screenshot.

Then photos of a smiling Peng emerged Friday on the verified Twitter account @shen_shiwei, labelled Chinese state-affiliated media by the social network.

The authenticity of the images could not be verified, and the user did not respond to AFP's request for comment.

These were followed by the videos posted on Saturday and Sunday.

China's government has repeatedly refused to comment on the case.

Discussion about Peng's accusations is blocked on China's tightly controlled internet.

'Independent, verifiable proof'

A growing chorus of voices in the sports world and beyond want to know where and how Peng is.

The White House has expressed “deep concern” about Peng, with US President Joe Biden's press secretary saying his administration wanted China to “provide independent, verifiable proof” of her whereabouts.

Britain's foreign office also said it was “extremely concerned” and urged China to verifiable evidence.

The UN has insisted on a fully transparent investigation into the claims made by Peng.

Some of the biggest names in tennis have spoken out about the case, including Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka.

Superstar Roger Federer also weighed in on Saturday, saying on Sky News: “She's one of our tennis champions, a former world number one. Clearly it's concerning. I hope she's safe.”

Peng represented China at the Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro Olympics and won gold for China at the 2010 Asian Games.

She is a former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion.

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