China has called on people to stop “hyping” the case of tennis star Peng Shuai in response to questions being raised over her whereabouts and wellbeing.
Peng had not been seen or heard from publicly for three weeks after she alleged on social media on 2 November that former vice premier Zhang Gaoli had coerced her into having sex.
Videos of the 35-year-old lunching with friends and attending a junior tennis tournament have emerged in the last few days, including photos purporting to show her smiling with a grey cat surrounded by soft toys – all published by state media, and not Peng herself.
They have been met with scepticism.
After the restaurant video emerged, Steve Simon, head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), wrote: “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.”
On Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, told reporters: “This is not a diplomatic matter. I believe everyone will have seen she has recently attended some public activities and also held a video call with IOC President (Thomas) Bach. I hope certain people will cease malicious hyping, let alone politicisation.”
Amnesty International’s China researcher Alkan Akad told Reuters news agency the video call did little to ease fears over Peng’s wellbeing and that the International Olympic Committee was entering “dangerous waters”.
The UK, US, France, and tennis players including Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Andy Murray have all expressed concerns over Peng, a former Olympian and doubles world number one.
Sky’s Asia correspondent Tom Cheshire yesterday visited the places the tennis player is said to have been, but did not see her in person – and said her Weibo account, on which she first published the allegations, is still blocked.
“Her appearance is welcome,” said Cheshire.
But the bigger, trickier questions – about her allegations, about her whereabouts since she made them, about her freedom now – have not been answered yet.”
It comes as Beijing is preparing to host the Winter Olympics next February.
Global rights groups and others have called for a boycott of the Games over China’s human rights record.
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