BEIJING – Missing tennis star Peng Shuai reappeared in public at a youth tournament in Beijing on Sunday, according to photos released by the organizer, as the ruling Communist Party tried to allay fears abroad while by suppressing information in China about Peng after she accused a senior executive of sexual assault.
The China Open post on social media service Weibo made no mention of Peng’s disappearance or his accusation. Peng was shown standing next to a court, waving and signing oversized children’s commemorative tennis balls.
The appearance follows an announcement by the editor of a party newspaper on Saturday on Twitter, which cannot be seen by most internet users in China, that the three-time Olympian will “appear in public” soon.
The ruling party appears to be trying to defuse the alarm over Peng without acknowledging his disappearance after former Wimbledon and Paris Open champion this month accused Zhang Gaoli, a member of the ruling party’s standing committee until in 2018, for forcing her to have sex.
Peng’s disappearance and the government’s silence in response to calls for information prompted calls to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, a high-profile event for the Communist Party. The women’s professional tour threatened to pull events out of China unless the safety of the former No.1 doubles player was assured.
Discussion of Peng’s accusation has been removed from websites in China. A government spokesperson on Friday denied knowing about the outcry. The ruling party’s internet filters also prevent most Chinese from seeing other social media overseas and most global media.
Comments on Chinese social media on Sunday criticized the Women’s Tennis Association and others who spoke about Peng, while Chinese comments on Twitter mocked the awkward posting of photos and videos.
“When will the WTA come out of China?” Said a comment on social media service Sina Weibo, signed “Sleep Time.”
Peng joins the growing number of Chinese businessmen, activists and ordinary people who have disappeared in recent years after criticizing party figures or as part of cracking down on corruption or campaigning for democracy and labor rights.
Some reappear weeks or months later without an explanation, suggesting that they are warned not to reveal that they were detained or the reason.
The editor-in-chief of the Global Times party newspaper, Hu Xijin, wrote on Twitter on Saturday that Peng was “freely staying at home” and “would appear in public and participate in certain activities soon.”
The English-language Global Times, aimed at foreign readers, is known for its nationalist tone. Hu uses his Twitter account to criticize foreign governments and report social and economic problems abroad.
A Twitter comment signed by bobzhang999 said, “Hu Dog, with so many pictures, why don’t you let Peng Shuai speak?”
Another, signed Magician, said, “Let Peng Shuai’s parents hold a press conference. “
The tennis stars and the WTA have been unusually vocal in demanding information on Peng. Other companies and sports groups are reluctant to take on Beijing for fear of losing access to the Chinese market or other reprisals.
The ruling party has given no indication whether it is investigating Peng’s accusation against Gao, 75, who left the Standing Committee in 2018 and has largely disappeared from public life.
Even if Peng’s charge is held to be valid, the Chinese are often jailed or face other penalties for embarrassing the party by posting abuse complaints instead of going through the secretive and often callous official system.
The status of star athletes like Peng is particularly sensitive. State media are celebrating their victories as proof that the party is making China strong. But the party is vigilant to ensure that it cannot use its notoriety and public appeal to erode its image.
Steve Simon, president and CEO of the WTA, expressed concern for Peng’s safety after Hu posted two videos on Saturday that appeared to show her in a restaurant.
“Although it is positive to see her, it is still unclear whether she is free and capable of making decisions and acting on her own, without coercion or outside interference. This video alone is insufficient,” Simon said. “Our relationship with China is at a crossroads.”
The International Olympic Committee has been silent on the status of Peng, who has competed in three Olympics, contributing to the IOC’s multi-million dollar revenue from broadcast and sponsorship.
Emma Terho, the new president-elect of the IOC Athletes’ Commission responsible for representing the interests of Olympic athletes, said in a statement on Saturday “we support the approach of quiet diplomacy” favored by the IOC.
Last week, the foreign branch of state television released a statement in English attributed to Peng who withdrew his accusation against Zhang. Simon of the WTA questioned his legitimacy while others said it only increased their concern for his safety.
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