Olympic officials: Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai says she is safe

BEIJING – Missing Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai told Olympic officials in a video call from Beijing that she was safe and sound, the International Olympic Committee said Sunday after Peng made another public appearance at a youth tournament in Beijing, according to photos released by the organizer.

The 30-minute phone call came amid growing global alarm over Peng after she accused a former Communist Party senior official of sexual assault. The ruling Communist Party of China has tried to quell fears abroad while suppressing information in China about Peng.

Sunday’s call — featuring IOC President Thomas Bach, Athletes Committee Chair Emma Terho, and IOC Member Li Lingwei, former Vice President of the Chinese Tennis Association — appears to be Peng’s first direct contact with sports officials outside of China since she met on November. disappeared from the public eye. 2.

Peng “thanks the IOC for its concern for her well-being,” the Switzerland-based Olympic body said in a statement.

She explained that she lives safe and sound in her home in Beijing, but at this point she would like her privacy to be respected. That is why she now prefers to spend her time with friends and family,” the statement said.

Peng, who played for three Olympic Games for China from 2008 to 2016, made charges of sexual assault on Chinese social media against Zhang Gaoli, a former member of the ruling Communist Party’s Standing Committee.

That post was removed within minutes and the former top doubles player disappeared from public view. She did not respond publicly to calls for information to show she was safe.

Peng joins a growing number of Chinese businessmen, activists and ordinary people who have disappeared in recent years after criticizing party figures or cracking down on corruption or pro-democracy and labor rights campaigns.

Some reappear weeks or months later without explanation, suggesting they are being warned not to disclose their detention or the reason.

The photos of Peng posted to Weibo’s social media service by the China Open on Sunday made no mention of her disappearance or her accusation. The former Wimbledon champion stood next to a field, waving and drawing oversized commemorative tennis balls for children.

Peng’s disappearance and official silence in response to requests for information sparked calls for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, a prestige event for the Communist Party. The women’s professional tour was in danger of taking events out of China unless the former No. 1 doubles player’s safety was assured.

The IOC had previously been silent about the status of Peng, who participated in three Olympic Games and helped contribute to the IOC’s multimillion-dollar revenue from broadcasting and sponsorship.

The Olympic body’s stated policy is “quiet diplomacy”. The IOC had said on Saturday that it would “continue our open dialogue at all levels with the Olympic movement in China”.

Discussion of Peng’s accusation has been removed from websites in China. A government spokesman denied knowing about the outrage on Friday. The ruling party’s internet filters also prevent most people in China from seeing other social media abroad and most global news channels.

Comments on Chinese social media on Sunday criticized the Women’s Tennis Association and others who spoke out about Peng. Comments in Chinese on Twitter made fun of the inconvenient release of photos and video of Peng by state media officials this weekend while the government remained silent.

“When will the WTA come out of China?” said a comment on Sina Weibo’s social media service, signed “Sleep Time.”

Peng’s performance on Sunday was mentioned in the last sentence of a report about the tournament on the website of the Anglophone Global Times, a newspaper of the ruling party and aimed at foreign readers, but not directly reported by other media within China.

Global Times editor Hu Xijin said on Twitter on Saturday that it cannot be seen by most Internet users in China that Peng “stayed freely in her own home” and would soon “appear in public”.

The Global Times is known for its nationalistic tone. Hu uses his Twitter account to criticize foreign governments and point out social and economic problems abroad.

A comment on Twitter, signed by bobzhang999, said: “Hu Dog, with so many pictures, why don’t you let Peng Shuai talk?”

Another, Wizard signed, said, “Let Peng Shuai’s parents hold a press conference.”

Tennis stars and the WTA have been extremely 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 75-year-old Gao, who left the ruling Communist Party’s ruling Standing Committee in 2018 and has largely disappeared from public life.

Even if Peng’s charges are upheld, people in China are often jailed or face other penalties for embarrassing the party by publishing abuse complaints rather than the secret, often unresponsive official system to go.

The status of star athletes like Peng is especially sensitive. State media celebrate their victories as proof that the party makes China strong. But the party is vigilant to make sure they can’t use their fame and public appeal to tarnish its image.

Steve Simon, the chairman and CEO of the WTA, expressed concerns for Peng’s safety after the newspaper’s editor Hu posted two videos on Saturday that appeared to show her in a restaurant.

“While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear whether she is free and able to make decisions and take actions independently, without coercion or outside interference. This video alone is not enough,” said Simon. “Our relationship with China is at a crossroads.”

The IOC said on Saturday it would “continue our open dialogue at all levels with the Olympic movement in China”.

Asked two weeks ago about human rights in China, senior IOC member Juan Antonio Samaranch said “we are not discussing anything with the Chinese government” on that subject.

The IOC has previously said that its partner in organizing the Winter Games is the local organizing committee, not the Chinese state. That committee is controlled by the Communist Party.

Emma Terho, the newly elected head of the IOC’s Athletes Commission charged with representing the interests of Olympic athletes, said in a statement on Saturday “we support the quiet diplomacy” approach favored by the IOC.

Last week, the foreign branch of state television released a statement in English attributable to Peng, withdrawing its accusation against Zhang. Simon of the WTA questioned its legitimacy, while others said it only heightens their concerns for her safety.

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AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed to this report.

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