BEIJING – Missing tennis star Peng Shuai reappeared in public at a youth tournament in Beijing on Sunday as the ruling Communist Party tried to allay fears overseas while suppressing information in China about Peng, according to photos by the organizer a senior leader had accused of sexual assault.
The China Open post on the Weibo social media service did not mention Peng’s disappearance or her allegation. The three-time Olympic champion and former Wimbledon champion was shown next to a court, waved and signed oversized commemorative tennis balls for children.
The ruling party appears to be trying to defuse concerns about Peng, without acknowledging her disappearance, after accusing Zhang Gaoli, a member of the party’s standing committee until 2018, of forcing her to have sex on Nov. 2.
Peng’s disappearance and official silence in response to calls for information led to calls for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, a prestige event for the Communist Party. The women’s professional tour threatened to drive events out of China if the safety of the former No. 1 doubles player was not ensured.
Discussion of Peng’s allegation has been cleared from websites in China. A government spokesman denied having known about the outcry on Friday. The ruling party’s internet filters also prevent most people in China from seeing other overseas social media and most global news outlets.
Comments on Chinese social media on Sunday criticized the Women’s Tennis Association and others for commenting on Peng. Chinese comments on Twitter poked fun at the awkward posting of Peng’s photos and videos by state media workers that weekend while the government was silent.
“When will the WTA come out of China?” Said a comment on the social media service Sina Weibo, which is signed with “Sleep Time”.
Peng adds to a growing number of Chinese businessmen, activists and ordinary people who have disappeared in recent years after criticism of party figures or crackdowns against corruption or pro-democracy and labor campaigns.
Some reappear weeks or months later with no explanation, suggesting that they are being warned not to reveal their detention or the reason for it.
Peng’s appearance on Sunday was mentioned in the last sentence of a report on the tournament on the website of the English-language Global Times, a newspaper published by the ruling party aimed at foreign readers but not immediately covered by other media within China.
Global Times editor Hu Xijin said on Twitter Saturday, unseen by most internet users in China, that Peng “stayed free in her own home” and would “appear in public” soon.
The Global Times is known for its nationalist tone. Hu uses his Twitter account to criticize foreign governments and to point out social and economic problems abroad.
A comment on Twitter, signed bobzhang999, said, “Hu Dog, with so many photos, why don’t you let Peng Shuai speak?”
Another undersigned magician said, “Have Peng Shuai’s parents hold a press conference.”
Tennis stars and the WTA are unusually loud asking for information about Peng. Other companies and sports groups are reluctant to confront Beijing for fear of losing access to the Chinese market or taking other retaliatory measures.
The ruling party has not disclosed whether it is investigating Peng’s allegations against Gao (75), who left the Standing Committee in 2018 and has largely disappeared from public life.
Even if Peng’s accusation is deemed valid, people in China are often detained or face other punishments for embarrassing the party by posting complaints of abuse rather than going through the secret, often unresponsive, official system.
The status of star athletes like Peng is particularly sensitive. State media celebrate their victories as proof that the party makes China strong. But the party is vigilant to ensure that it cannot use its notoriety and public appeal to undermine its image.
Steve Simon, the chairman and CEO of the WTA, expressed concern for Peng’s safety after Hu, the newspaper editor, posted two videos on Saturday that appeared to be showing them in a restaurant.
“Although it is positive to see her, it remains unclear whether she is free and able to make decisions and take action on her own, without coercion or outside interference. This video alone is not enough, ”said Simon. “Our relationship with China is at a crossroads.”
The International Olympic Committee has remained silent about the status of Peng, who has participated in three Olympic Games and thus contributed to the IOC’s millions in broadcast and sponsorship income.
The stated policy of the Olympic Body is “silent diplomacy”. The IOC said on Saturday that it would “continue our open dialogue at all levels with the Olympic movement in China”.
When asked about human rights in China two weeks ago, senior IOC member Juan Antonio Samaranch said: “We are not discussing this issue with the Chinese government”.
The IOC previously stated that its partner in organizing the Winter Games is the local organizing committee, not the Chinese state. This committee is controlled by the Communist Party.
Emma Terho, the newly elected head of the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission charged with representing the interests of Olympic athletes, said in a statement on Saturday: “We support the IOC’s preferred approach of silent diplomacy”.
Last week, the foreign branch of state television released a statement in English attributed to Peng, in which her allegations against Zhang were withdrawn. Simon of the WTA questioned their legitimacy while others said it only added to their concerns about their safety.