Missing tennis star Peng Shuai reappeared in public Sunday at a youth tournament in Beijing, according to photos released by the organiser, as the ruling Communist Party tried to quell fears abroad while suppressing information in China about Peng after she accused a senior leader of sexual assault. The post by the China Open on the Weibo social media service made no mention of Peng's disappearance or her accusation. Peng was shown standing beside a court, waving and signing oversize commemorative tennis balls for children.
The appearance followed an announcement by the editor of a party newspaper Saturday on Twitter, which can't be seen by most internet users in China, that the three-time Olympian would "show up in public" soon. The ruling party appears to be trying to defuse alarm about Peng without acknowledging her disappearance after the former Wimbledon and Paris Open champion this month accused Zhang Gaoli, a member of the party's ruling Standing Committee until 2018, of forcing her to have sex. Peng's disappearance and the government's silence in response to appeals for information prompted calls for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, a prestige 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 deleted from websites in China. A government spokesman on Friday denied knowing about the outcry. The ruling party's internet filters also block most people in China from seeing other social media abroad and most global news outlets. Peng adds to a growing number of Chinese businesspeople, activists and ordinary people who have disappeared in recent years after criticising party figures or in crackdowns on corruption or pro-democracy and labour rights campaigns.
Some re-emerge weeks or months later without explanation, suggesting they are warned not to disclose they were detained or the reason. The editor of the party newspaper Global Times, Hu Xijin, wrote Saturday on Twitter that Peng "stayed in her own home freely" and would "show up in public and participate in some activities soon". The English-language Global Times, aimed at foreign readers, is known for its nationalistic tone. Hu uses his Twitter account to criticise foreign governments and point out social and economic problems abroad. Tennis stars and the Women's Tennis Association have been unusually vocal in demanding information about Peng.
Other companies and sports groups are reluctant to confront Beijing for fear of losing access to the Chinese market or other retaliation. 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 accusation is deemed valid, people in China often are jailed or face other penalties for embarrassing the party by publicising complaints about abuses instead of going through the secretive, often unresponsive official system. The status of star athletes such as Peng is especially sensitive.
State media celebrate their victories as proof the party is making China strong. But the party is vigilant about making sure they cannot use their prominence and public appeal to erode its image. Steve Simon, the WTA's chairman and CEO, expressed concern for Peng's safety after Hu posted two videos Saturday that appeared to show her in a restaurant. "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," Simon said. "Our relationship with China is at a crossroads." The International Olympic Committee has remained quiet about the status of Peng, who competed in three Olympics, helping to contribute to the IOC's multimillion-dollar revenue from broadcasting and sponsorships. Emma Terho, the newly elected head of the IOC's Athletes' Commission that is charged with representing the interests of Olympic athletes, said in a statement Saturday "we support the quiet diplomacy" approach favoured by the IOC. Last week, the foreign arm of state TV issued a statement in English attributed to Peng that retracted her accusation against Zhang. The WTA's Simon questioned its legitimacy while others said it only increased their concern about her safety.