Amid growing speculation on the whereabouts of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, China’s Foreign Ministry warned against politicizing and speculating about the star’s wellbeing.
“This is not a diplomatic matter,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular press briefing on Tuesday.
“I believe everyone will have seen she has recently attended some public activities and also held a video call with IOC President (Thomas) Bach. I hope certain people will cease malicious hyping, let alone politicization,” Zhao added.
On Monday the Women’s Tennis Association’s (WTA) said it is still concerned about Peng despite her appearance and the International Olympic Committee call.
“It was good to see Peng Shuai in recent videos, but they don’t alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion,” a WTA spokeswoman said in an e-mail. “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.”
Peng had not been seen since earlier this month after she accused Zhang Gaoli, a former Chinese vice premier, of forcing her to have sex several years ago. Her absence from public sight had prompted international demands for Chinese officials to account for her safety.
On Sunday, the three-time Olympian and former Wimbledon champion appeared standing beside a tennis court, waving and signing oversized commemorative tennis balls for children.
Later, she had a 30-minute call with Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, who said she thanked the IOC for its concern about her.
“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 said in a statement.
“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,” the IOC said.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch was critical of the IOC, accusing it of collaborating with Beijing and undermining the IOC’s “expressed commitment to human rights, including the rights and safety of athletes.”
“The IOC has vaulted itself from silence about Beijing’s abysmal human rights record to active collaboration with Chinese authorities in undermining freedom of speech and disregarding alleged sexual assault,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch in a statement. “The IOC appears to prize its relationship with a major human rights violator over the rights and safety of Olympic athletes.”
The China Open posted a note on the Weibo social media network about Peng’s appearance at the youth tournament but made no mention of her disappearance or accusation that she was assaulted.
The women’s professional tennis tour had threatened to pull events out of China unless Peng’s safety was assured.
Dave Haggerty, the International Tennis Federation president and International Olympic Committee member, said in a statement Sunday, “Our primary concern is Peng Shuai’s safety and her well-being. The videos of her this weekend appear to be a positive step, but we will continue to seek direct engagement and confirmation from Peng Shuai herself that she is safe and well.”
Peng’s disappearance and accusation against the former Chinese official is occurring as Beijing is set to host the Winter Olympics starting on February 4 amid international condemnation of China’s human rights record.
Current and former players like Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Billie Jean King, took to social media to call for proof Peng was safe.
The world’s top male player, Novak Djokovic, called the situation “horrific” and questioned whether tennis tournaments should be held in China until it was resolved.
Some information in this report came from Reuters and the Associated Press.