Speculation and concerns grow over the welfare of Peng Shuai, despite efforts by China’s state media that claim the player, who vanished after accusing a top leader of sexual assault, is out and about, and safe.
This is not about the money, this is about doing what is right and making sure Peng Shuai is safe and free, Steve Simon, WTA Chairman and CEO
Peng accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China, of sexually abusing her 10 years ago and admitted to an on-off extra-marital affair since the coercive incident.
Her social media post was taken down within 20 minutes, and was not reported in Chinese media that is subject to blanket censorship, while Peng has not been seen, or been in contact, since.
Calls for China to verify Peng’s safety were met with a fresh twist when journalist Shen Shiwei, who works for state-run China Global Television Network, published an unverified and widely doubted email purported to have been sent by Peng to the WTA, and subsequently posted images of Peng on Twitter.
The email began with ‘Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai’, and was only reported on in English-speaking media, while the screenshot included a cursor, usually only present on the screen when someone is typing.
WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon expressed his fear for Peng’s safety, saying the letter ‘only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts’ and that he has ‘a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received’ or believes what is being attributed to her.
The photos that appeared on Saturday showed Peng holding a cat and a toy panda and were posted on a WeChat account, but experts state that these lack credibility as the post had come from an account named ‘Peng Shuai 2’ with the Chinese flag as its avatar.
A 45-second video has since been released, which appears to show Peng sitting with China Open tournament co-director Zhang Junhui, along with two women, around a table in a restaurant in Beijing.
Zhang is speaking to Peng, but she does not say anything and, according to CNN’s translation, Zhang says: “Yes, this year is different from last year, because of the pandemic. Originally, we planned to have 10 tours in 3 months, isn’t tomorrow November 20? We have long planned… ”
One of the two women, though, quickly corrects him, saying: “21st.”
“Oh, November 21, tomorrow is November 21, we will have the final game at Duanshi,” Zhang continued.
“We had larger-scale games before, but because of the pandemic, two tours have been affected. So it’s estimated there will be fewer players, but the kids are still very enthusiastic,” Zhang added.
“So the players in tomorrow’s game are the champions during the past 9 tours in the past 3 months. You can see it’s Sunday, at the end of November, so it’s like a year-end final,” Zhang said in the video.
Another man, under the name Ding Li, also tweeted the same video and several new photos of Peng with him and others, writing: “Peng Shuai is with me. We’re at this restaurant in Beijing that’s gone viral online, just finished dinner.”
In his tweet, Ding claims the dinner was at Beijing Yibin Guesthouse, which matched what was shown in a video posted by Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the state-run tabloid Global Times.
The video, however, does not convince Simon, who on Saturday expressed relief at seeing Peng, but said in a statement: “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.
“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.”
On Sunday, members of Chinese state media released more videos on social platforms purporting to show Peng at a tennis event for teenagers in Beijing, in which she says very little but is seen smiling, but these videos also have yet to be independently verified.
The global outcry increases after Peng disappeared from public life nearly two weeks ago, having accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China, of sexually assaulting her 3 years ago.
The IOC could be forced to take hard line with China over Peng, Richard Pound, a long-serving member, admitted, as the Athletes’ Commission joined the chorus of concern, warning that the situation could ‘spin out of control’ unless it is ‘resolved in a sensible way very soon’.
The Canadian official doubted that Peng’s case would result in the Winter Olympics not taking place in Beijing in February.
The WTA has called for an investigation, and threatened to pull its tournaments worth tens of millions of dollars out of China, but even though Peng is a 3-time Olympian, the IOC has given no indication it is willing to take a similar stand, risking billions of dollars in television rights and sponsorships.
“I don’t know whether we are there yet,” Pound, a Canadian lawyer and former-Olympian, told Reuters. “But I’m sure [the IOC Executive Committee] are following this to see where it is going.
“Action against one of its own citizens for airing a complaint about one of their higher ups – that’s harder for [China] to handle than the usual, ‘This is a domestic matter now get lost’.”
Pound also dismissed the possibility of the IOC demanding a meeting with Peng, admitting that China does not respond well to threats.
“That would be a little harder line than the IOC would normally be taking,” he added.
“Where we have generated some change of attitude in the past we’ve said, ‘Listen this is all out there in the public how do we respond’. We can’t ignore it. That in the past has produced some movement.
“My guess is it will be that kind of line rather than jabbing them in the chest and saying, ‘Do this or the world will end’.
“If you’re China you can say, ‘OK it will be disappointing [losing the Olympics] but it will be more disappointing for the rest of the world than it will be for us’.”
The IOC Athletes’ Commission said: “Together with the worldwide athlete community, the IOC AC is very concerned about the situation of three-time Olympian Peng Shuai,” in a statement.
“We support the quiet diplomacy approach that is being taken [by the IOC] and hope it will lead to the release of information about the whereabouts of Peng Shuai and confirmation of her safety and well-being.
“We also hope that a way can be found for direct engagement between her and her athlete colleagues.”
Nevertheless, the IOC has been criticised for its approach from many other quarters, but defends its ‘quiet diplomacy’ stance.
“The IOC appreciates the concerns expressed by so many athletes and National Olympic Committees,” a spokesperson stated on Saturday.
“We also welcome the support of the IOC Athletes’ Commission for our quiet diplomacy approach.
“This approach means we will continue our open dialogue on all levels with the Olympic Movement in China.”
Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet, a former IOC Athletes’ Commission vice-chair and ex-IOC member, has called for the ‘greatest transparency’ regarding the health and safety of Peng.
The National Olympic Committees of The Netherlands and Germany have also shared concern over Peng’s safety, along with leading tennis players, including Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, amongst many others.
The LTA has offered its assistance in efforts to find Peng Shuai, while Murray also raised awareness about the missing Chinese player’s whereabouts.
“This is a very concerning situation, and we have written to the WTA offering our assistance in their efforts to establish the safety and well-being of Peng Shuai,” an LTA statement read.
“We are also keen to support any further measures that the tours can introduce to improve the safety of all players.
“The immediate priority is to establish that Peng Shuai is safe and well and, furthermore, that she is able to speak freely and not subject to any form of censorship.”
Three-time Grand Slam winner Murray also joined the #WhereIsPengShuai online movement as he shared a message on Twitter and re-tweeted French Open champion Barbora Krejickova’s speech at the WTA Finals.
“Female tennis player Peng Shuai whereabouts currently unknown after making sexual abuse allegations against Chinese government official,” he wrote. “This speech gives us a reminder and some hope that things can change in the future. #WhereIsPengShuai.”
Meanwhile, the British Olympic Committee has told insidethegames: “We join the wider sporting community in expressing our concern for the welfare of Peng Shuai.
“We call on all responsible bodies to provide the urgent clarification of her safety that we all require.”
US President Joe Biden remains ‘deeply concerned’ with the situation, and wants China to ‘provide independent, verifiable proof’, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
“We are deeply concerned by reports that Peng Shuai appears to be missing after accusing a former PRC [Peoples Republic of China] senior official of sexual assaults,” she told reporters.
“We join in the calls for PRC authorities to provide independent and verifiable proof of her whereabouts and that she is safe.
“We know the PRC [People’s Republic of China] has zero tolerance for criticism, and a record of silencing those that speak out, and we continue to condemn those practices.”
Critics of the regime say China’s record on human rights makes it an unfit Olympic host, and the Peng case is likely to give rise to more criticism over how China handles dissent.
Liz Throssell, the spokesman for the UN Human Rights Office, echoed concerns and called for an investigation ‘with full transparency’ into Peng’s allegations.
“[Peng] hasn’t been heard from publicly since she alleged on social media that she was sexually assaulted,” Throssell told reporters.
“What we would say is that it would be important to have proof of her whereabouts and wellbeing, and we would urge that there be an investigation with full transparency into her allegations of sexual assault.”
Biden has since confirmed that America is considering a diplomatic boycott of next year’s Winter Olympic Games in Beijing as a protest against China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority.
A boycott by senior US politicians has been discussed for several months, but this is the first time that Biden has admitted that is it ‘something we’re considering’.
Under a diplomatic boycott, US athletes would take part as normal, but there would be no accompanying political delegation of officials and politicians.
Some US politicians, however, have called for a complete boycott of the event that would include American athletes.
China’s Foreign Ministry hit back at such reports, accusing the US of violating the ‘Olympic spirit’.
“Politicising sports is against the Olympic spirit, and harms the interests of athletes from all countries,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a briefing in Beijing.
Meanwhile, Simon told the BBC: “We cannot stand by compromises. This is a right and wrong issue.”
Djokovic backed that stance following his win over Cameron Norrie at the ATP Finals in Turin, saying: “It’s important because this is horrifying. I mean, a person is missing.
“China is a huge country. It’s a very important part of the world especially for the WTA. They have many tournaments there. I mean, this is necessary for us to take whatever action.
“I heard just now that the WTA is willing to pull out from China with all the tournaments unless this is resolved. I support it 100 per cent.”
In 2019, the most recent non-COVID-19-impacted season, China hosted 9 WTA events and provided $30.4 million (£22.6 million/€26.9 million) in prize money.
“This is not about the money, this is about doing what is right and making sure Peng Shuai is safe and free,” Simon told the BBC.
“The sad part about this is that we have some tremendous partners and some tremendous friendships in China.
“We don’t want to be in this position, but at the end of the day, this is one of those decisions where compromises are not acceptable.
“We have to do what is right here, and we will figure that out if we end up being in that position at the end of the day.”
Peng, a former doubles World No 1, has not been seen or heard from publicly since 2 November, and until she makes direct and verifiable contact, the public outcry will only gather yet more steam.