The Chinese Foreign Ministry finally commented Tuesday on the case of tennis star Peng Shuai, who disappeared after making bombshell rape allegations against a senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official.
After days of refusing to answer questions about Peng, the Foreign Ministry accused people around the world of “maliciously hyping up” and “politicizing” Peng’s story.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian still insisted Peng’s case is “not a diplomatic matter” on Tuesday, but this time he added some comments about photos and videos released by the Chinese government to prove Peng is alive and well.
“I believe you have all seen that she recently attended some public events and had a video call with IOC [International Olympic Committee] President Thomas Bach,” Zhao said.
“I think some people should stop deliberately and maliciously hyping up, let alone politicize this issue,” he added.
Peng, a major sports celebrity in China, disappeared shortly after writing a November 2 post on China’s Weibo social media platform in which she accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her to have sex a decade ago. The much older Zhang became the highest-ranking CCP official to face such allegations in China’s #MeToo era.
Chinese censors swung into action immediately, deleting Peng’s Weibo post and suppressing searches for information about her.
Tennis fans and fellow players grew increasingly concerned for her well-being, including court legends and contemporary star players. Peng’s plight also drew the attention of basketball star Enes Kanter, an outspoken critic of China’s human rights abuses. On Sunday, Kanter added his voice to the chorus of demands for the IOC to cancel the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics “for Peng Shuai’s sake.”
The Women’s Tennis Association and its CEO, Steve Simon, have been remarkably firm in demanding solid proof that Peng is safe and free. Simon was quick to question an email purportedly sent by Peng late last week, when pressure mounted against Beijing, and he threatened to withdraw the WTA from China.
The IOC has been less assertive toward the Chinese government. In a statement on Sunday, IOC President Thomas Bach and a few other Olympic officials said they spoke with Peng in a 30-minute video call. This was the call referenced by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Tuesday.
The IOC said Peng “explained she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time.”
Chinese state media also published images of Peng relaxing at home, distributing them to the West through social media platforms like Twitter that Chinese citizens are forbidden to use. One photo drew special attention because a photo of Winnie the Pooh is prominently visible in the background.
Winnie the Pooh is banned in China because dissidents use the cartoon bear to mock corpulent Chinese dictator Xi Jinping, so some observers wondered if Peng slipped that photo into her proof-of-life set as a “distress signal” to the outside world, while pro-China social media users suggested the Chinese state inserted that photo as a means of “trolling” its Western critics.
Despite the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s sarcastic dismissals, human rights groups such as Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) remain skeptical of the proof China has provided to vouch for Peng’s safety.
HRW’s Australia director, Elaine Pearson, said on Tuesday it was “shameful to see the IOC participating in this Chinese government’s charade that everything is fine.”
“Peng Shuai’s allegations must be fully investigated and she must be free to say and do what she wants,” said AI’s Asia advocacy director Carolyn Nash.
The WTA is still officially unconvinced.
“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,” a spokesperson said after the IOC held its teleconference with Peng.
“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.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said there was simply no substitute for allowing Peng to speak to the worldwide public, free of threats and coercion.
“I’m expecting only one thing: that she speaks,” Le Drian said.