Peng Shuai: fresh videos fail to ease concerns as China faces global backlash

Fresh videos of missing tennis star Peng Shuai were posted by Chinese state media on Sunday morning, amid growing global pressure for Beijing to provide verifiable evidence of her whereabouts and safety.

The latest footage, released by Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of state newspaper the Global Times, appears to show the player being introduced at a youth tennis match in Beijing. Hu said on Twitter – a platform that is officially banned in China – that the footage was taken on Sunday but this claim could not be verified.

A Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) spokesperson said the latest footage was “insufficient” and still did not address the association’s concerns about her wellbeing.

Responding to earlier footage, Steve Simon, the chair and CEO of the WTA, said: “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.”

A further clip of Peng signing tennis balls for children as “a way of inspiring more kids to play tennis” emerged from other state media reporters later on Sunday. It follows previous footage released by Hu showing the 35-year-old eating at a Beijing restaurant, purportedly on Saturday night.

Sunday’s footage appears to have done nothing to assuage concerns from sports authorities and western leaders who say the videos cannot be verified and fail to prove she is safe and well.

Peng, a former doubles world No 1, has not been seen or heard from publicly since she accused former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, who is now in his 70s, on 2 November of forcing her to have sex after playing tennis at his home.

Britain’s Foreign Office has said it was “extremely concerned” and urged China to provide “verifiable evidence of her safety and whereabouts”.

“Everyone should be allowed to speak out without fear of repercussions. All reports of sexual assault, anywhere in the world, should be investigated,” it said in a statement.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday that president Joe Biden’s administration wanted China to “provide independent, verifiable proof” of Peng’s whereabouts and expressed “deep concern” about the former top-ranked doubles player.

The United Nations has also insisted on a fully transparent investigation into the claims made by Peng against Zhang – the first time China’s #MeToo movement has touched the highest echelons of the country’s Communist party.

“It would be important to have proof of her whereabouts and wellbeing,” Liz Throssell, a spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Office, told reporters in Geneva. “We are calling for an investigation with full transparency into her allegation of sexual assault.”

The latest to weigh in was the tennis great Roger Federer, who said on Saturday: “She’s one of our tennis champions, a former world number one. Clearly it’s concerning. I hope she’s safe.”

Hu wrote in English on Twitter that the restaurant 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” and a man sitting with Peng and two other women says “tomorrow is November 20th”. But one of the women quickly interrupts him to say “It is the 21st”, or Sunday.

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

Peng has not been seen publicly since alleging earlier this month that Zhang had “forced” her into sex during an on-off relationship spanning several years. The claims, made on Chinese social media site Weibo, were quickly scrubbed from the Twitter-like platform.

A growing chorus of voices in the sports world and beyond – including the UK, US government and the United Nations – want to know where and how Peng is.

On Friday, photos of a smiling Peng emerged on a Chinese state-affiliated Twitter account, but their authenticity also could not be verified. The four undated photographs were posted by the Twitter account @shen_shiwei, labelled “Chinese state-affiliated media” by the social network.

After the pictures emerged, Hu tweeted in English: “In the past few days, she stayed in her own home freely and she didn’t want to be disturbed. She will show up in public and participate in some activities soon.”

Earlier this week, state-run CGTN published a screenshot on Twitter of what it said was an email written by Peng to the WTA, which has threatened to end lucrative contracts with China unless it gets word that Peng is safe and well. In it, Peng claims her earlier accusations are “not true” and that she is “resting at home and everything is fine”.

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

China has repeatedly refused to comment on the case.

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

Agence France-Presse and Reuters contributed to this report

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