Missing tennis star Peng Shuai reappeared in public Sunday at a youth tournament in Beijing, according to photos released by the organizer, as the Communist Party of China tried to quell fears abroad about Peng after she accused a senior leader of sexual assault.
The post by the China Open on the Weibo social media service made no mention of Peng’s disappearance or her accusation. Peng was shown standing beside a court, waving and signing oversize commemorative tennis balls for children.
The appearance followed an announcement by the editor of a party newspaper Saturday on Twitter, which can’t be seen by most internet users in China, that the three-time Olympian would “show up in public” soon.
The chairman and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, Steve Simon, released a statement Saturday questioning Peng’s freedom at this time.
“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,” Simon said. “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.”
The Communist Party has faced mounting appeals from tennis stars and the sport’s professional tour to prove Peng, a three-time Olympian and former No. 1-ranked women’s doubles player, is safe and able to speak freely.
“She’s one of our tennis champions, a former world No. 1, and clearly it’s concerning,” Federer told Sky Italia. “I hope she’s safe. The tennis family sticks together and I’ve always told my children as well that the tennis family is my second family. I’ve been on tour for 20-25 years and I love the tour, I love the people that are there, [they] are special, the players as well, and she’s one of them.”
The controversy is politically awkward as the Chinese capital prepares to hold the Winter Olympics in February. China’s Foreign Ministry has repeatedly disavowed any knowledge of Peng’s case and denied knowing about the outcry over her disappearance.
Peng, 35, posted a statement on social media earlier this month accusing Zhang Gaoli, a former member of the party’s Standing Committee, the ruling inner circle of power, of forcing her to have sex despite repeated refusals.
CGTN, the English-language arm of China Central Television that is aimed at foreign audiences, distributed a statement this week it said came from Peng that retracted the accusations against Zhang. The editor of the party newspaper Global Times, Hu Xijin, wrote Saturday on Twitter that Peng “stayed in her own home freely” and would “show up in public and participate in some activities soon.”
Emma Terho, the chair of the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission, tweeted Saturday that the body “is very concerned about the situation of three-time Olympian Peng Shuai.”
“We support the quiet diplomacy approach that is being taken and hope it will lead to the release of information about the whereabouts of Peng Shuai and confirmation of her safety and well-being,” Terho added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.