Olympics Organizers Defend China with Undated Image of Missing Tennis Star Peng Shuai

IOC President Thomas Bach spoke to Ms Peng for 30 minutes on Sunday
IOC/Greg Martin

The Chinese Communist Party flooded social media this weekend with images of Peng Shuai, a tennis champion who disappeared after accusing a senior communist of raping her, insisting she was neither missing nor in danger.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), one of the world’s top enablers of human rights abuses in China, also published a photo allegedly showing its president, Thomas Bach, speaking to Peng on a video call. The screen showing Peng appeared blurred in the photo and the image offered no indication of when it was taken.

China is hosting the Winter Olympics next year despite global outrage at granting that honor to a nation that, in addition to apparently disappearing top athletes when politically expedient, is currently engaging in genocide, among other human rights atrocities.

The Chinese government propaganda newspaper Global Times‘ editor, Hu Xijin, published undated videos on Saturday that allegedly showed Peng at a teen tennis tournament in Beijing and dining at a restaurant.

The images surfaced after the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) threatened to withdraw all of its business from China in response to Peng’s disappearance. The Chinese government broadcaster CGTN published an “email” last week that it claimed Peng sent to WTA head Steve Simon in which she insisted she was healthy and safe and urged the public not to worry about her wellbeing. Simon publicly challenged the authenticity of the email before the new video and photos surfaced.

Peng has notably not addressed the accusations against former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, 40 years her senior. In a now-deleted post on Weibo, the most popular Chinese regime-controlled social media outlet, Peng accused Zhang of raping her and admitted to a years-long affair with the official. The post disappeared rapidly from the site, as did her account. Peng mysteriously returned to another Chinese regime-controlled social media site, WeChat, this weekend with images that appeared to show her lounging peacefully at home.

The IOC claimed in an official statement that President Bach and several other senior Olympics officials held a conversation with Peng on Sunday. The image published alongside this claim shows Peng on a video screen sitting in front of a large collection of stuffed animals that also appeared in the photos posted to her Weibo account. The image of the video is blurred such that any date or time on the screen is not legible.

“At the beginning of the 30-minute call, Peng Shuai thanked the IOC for its concern about her well-being. She explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time,” the IOC claimed. “That is why she prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now. Nevertheless, she will continue to be involved in tennis, the sport she loves so much.”

Emma Terho, the chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, issued a statement claiming Peng was “relaxed” and “doing fine” and that Terho was personally “relieved” to interact with her.

Bach reportedly invited Peng to dinner upon his arrival to Beijing.

Peng’s media tour this weekend began with allegedly new photos of her along with a large stuffed animal collection on WeChat. The images appeared in the West through Chinese propagandists sharing them on Twitter. The Communist Party bans Chinese citizens not working for the regime from using Twitter.

Another senior Chinese regime propagandist – Hu, the editor-in-chief of the Global Times – published several videos of Peng on Saturday, including some of Peng signing tennis balls for fans, allegedly in Beijing, and some showing her dining at a restaurant. Hu insisted the images proved that Peng was happy and safe, despite the lack of date or time.

“Can any girl fake such sunny smile [sic] under pressure?” Hu asked, prompting widespread mockery on Twitter.

The event appears to be the Fila Kids Junior Tennis Challenger Finals in Beijing’s National Tennis Center. The Global Times covered the event this weekend – a bizarre move for the national newspaper, which typically does not offer such local coverage – and claimed “432 teenagers from 15 provinces and regions” participated in the tournament.

Beijing is currently experiencing a major Chinese coronavirus outbreak that prompted the indefinite postponement of the Beijing Marathon in October and extensive limitations on travel, including canceled flights, into the city. The coronavirus situation raises questions regarding how the alleged Fila tournament transpired without incident while much of the rest of normal life in the city endures coronavirus-related limitations.

Hu also shared a video that he asserted “clearly shows” that Peng was out in public on Saturday, without elaborating.

Independent verification of the authenticity of these images remains elusive.

WTA chairman Simon issued a statement following the release of these videos insisting that they were “insufficient” to calm concerns regarding Peng’s wellbeing.

“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.”

Simon has publicly threatened to withdraw the WTA’s billion-dollar business from China without an acceptable resolution to Peng’s situation, but no reports indicate he has made any actual moves to make that happen.

A WTA spokesperson again asserted in remarks to the U.K. Guardian on Monday that the videos, and the image from the IOC, had not resolved the organization’s worries.

“It was good to see Peng Shuai in recent videos, but they don’t alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her wellbeing and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion,” the spokesperson told the newspaper. About the IOC claims in particular, the spokesperson said, “This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern.“

The WTA is facing significant pressure from its players to defend Peng. Peng is one of the world’s greatest doubles tennis players and has won the doubles championship in both Wimbledon and Roland Garros. The tennis world has historically been a tight-knit community of fellow travelers – literally, as tennis players and their teams round the globe to participate in tournaments every year – and many of those calling for Peng’s safety know her well.

Among those demanding justice for Peng are fellow WTA players Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, and Alize Cornet, as well as men’s champions Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Roger Federer.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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