Virtual Call With Missing Tennis Player Peng Shuai Raises More Concerns About Her Safety

The Chinese tennis star is believed to have disappeared shortly after accusing a former Chinese vice premiere of sexual assault.

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Virtual Call With Missing Tennis Player Peng Shuai Raises More Concerns About Her Safety
Photo:Fred Lee/Getty Images (Getty Images)

The International Olympic Committee attempted to put fears about Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s disappearance to rest this weekend, sharing that IOC President Thomas Bach met with Peng on a 30-minute virtual call. The call — as well as videos of Peng that have been released by state-run media in China — have only fueled more questions and growing concern about the Olympian’s safety.

Peng appeared to have gone missing shortly after Nov. 2. On Nov. 3, just one day after her last public appearance, Peng made allegations on her Weibo account that former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted her, and pressured her to have a sexual relationship with him.

Activist group Human Rights Watch has since raised major concerns about the virtual call between Bach and Peng. The group accused the IOC of helping China to engage in sportswashing — laundering a country’s reputation through sports — ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics set for next year.

“The IOC has shown in the last few days just how desperate it is to keep a Games on the rails no matter the human cost,” HRW China Director Sophie Richardson said in a press conference on Tuesday morning.

Of Peng, the IOC said in its Sunday statement that ​she was “doing fine” and “relaxed” during her virtual call with Bach. The committee also emphasized that Peng has asked “to have her privacy respected.” Notably, as CNN points out, the IOC hasn’t explained how the video call was organized, raising eyebrows as to whether the Chinese government worked with the organization to arrange the call as part of a propaganda push.

The Women’s Tennis Association, which has also sounded alarms and brought awareness to Peng’s possible disappearance, has also responded to the IOC virtual call. In a statement to CNN on Tuesday, the organization noted that while “it was good to see Peng Shuai in recent videos,” the videos “don’t alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion.”

On Nov. 3, Peng shared her since-deleted post of her allegations about Zhang, written as an open letter to the former vice premier. The post claimed that their coercive relationship had taken place over the course of 10 years.

“I did not have any evidence, and it was simply impossible to have evidence. I couldn’t describe how disgusted I was, and how many times I asked myself am I still a human? I feel like a walking corpse. Every day I was acting, which person is the real me?”

Since Peng came forward, there have been concerns about her whereabouts and her safety, including an outpouring of support on social media from fellow tennis stars Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. Her last public appearance was Nov. 2, but since Friday, numerous photos and videos of Peng appearing happy and safe have surfaced on Twitter via individuals working for state-run media. As Twitter is blocked in China, these posts and the virtual call that may have been arranged between the Chinese government and IOC haven’t exactly quelled fears about Peng’s safety.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to outcry over Peng’s allegations and possible disappearance on Tuesday, stating that the government hopes “malicious speculation” will stop. The ministry also claimed that other countries are “maliciously hyping up” her case. Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, has declined to comment on whether the government will investigate Peng’s sexual assault allegations against Zhang.

Peng wouldn’t be the first famous or highly visible person to be targeted and possibly disappeared for political dissent and criticizing the Chinese government. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group, notably stopped making public appearances following his criticism of state regulations in Oct. 2020. He appeared three months later in a January 2021 video Alibaba released, in which he doesn’t address rumors and concerns about his disappearance. At the time, Ma’s friends said he hadn’t been detained and has just decided to keep a low profile following criticism of his comments, but speculation about what really happened to the entrepreneur has persisted. Real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang also disappeared from the public eye months before Ma, after he made criticisms of how the Chinese government was handling the COVID pandemic. Ren was later sentenced to 18 years in prison on corruption charges.

It’s also worth noting that Peng’s possible disappearance follows a long wave of pushback and repression against survivors and MeToo organizers in China. Zhou Xiaoxuan, a screenwriter, helped launch MeToo in China in 2018 when she accused prominent Chinese host and actor Zhu Jun of sexually assaulting her when she was working as an intern at C.C.T.V. in 2014. In September, a court in Beijing ruled that Zhou had failed to produce sufficient evidence in her harassment case.

When Zhou first shared her story in 2018, she recounted that the police she reported the incident to told her that she should be silent about it, because Zhu had a good reputation and “positive energy” for the country. Zhou also said that the police contacted her parents, who had government jobs, and warned them that she shouldn’t speak out.

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