State media: Chinese tennis star Peng to reappear 'soon'

Influential Party-linked journalist seeks to calm Twitter storm after 'new' photos raise more questions than answers

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai has been staying in her own home “freely” and will make a public appearance “soon”, a prominent state-media journalist said on Saturday.

The former doubles world number one has not been seen or heard from publicly since she said on social media on Nov 2 that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli had coerced her into sex and they later had an on-off consensual relationship.

Neither Zhang nor the Chinese government have commented on her allegation. Peng’s social media post was quickly deleted and the topic has been blocked from discussion on China’s heavily censored internet.

“In the past few days, she stayed in her own home freely and she didn’t want to be disturbed. She will show up in public and participate in some activities soon,” Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin wrote on Twitter.

The Global Times is published by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party. Its English-language commentaries, many of them penned by Hu, are widely read for insights into what the Chinese government is thinking.

Hu said he had confirmed through his sources that photos shared on Twitter by another journalist working for Chinese state media, purportedly showing Peng at home, depicted her “current state”.

Reuters was not able to verify the authenticity of the pictures independently.

The Twitter account @shen_shiwei, labelled “Chinese state-affiliated media” by the social network, posted four undated images of Peng late Friday.

In a tweet, @shen_shiwei said the pictures, which could not be independently verified by Western news agencies, were shared on Peng’s WeChat Moments, a function often restricted to friends, to wish her followers a “good weekend”.

One photo shows the smiling player with a cat in her arms, with stuffed animals, a trophy, a Chinese flag and certificates visible in the background.

Another shot shows a selfie of Peng with a toy from the movie Kung Fu Panda, and an image of Winnie the Pooh in the background. The latter is often censored online in China as critics say Chinese leader Xi Jinping resembles the iconic character.

“If this is indeed her recent photo, I think she might be sending a hidden message to the world,” wrote one Twitter user commenting on the Pooh image.

“She needs to do a live video for anyone to believe that,” wrote another user, saying the images shown “could have been taken weeks ago”.

Requests for comment from @shen_shiwei were not immediately answered.

Twitter is blocked in China and only people with a VPN-type workaround can access it. However, many Chinese diplomats and official state media have Twitter accounts that they use to defend China’s point of view. (Story continues below)

The United States on Friday demanded proof of the 35-year-old’s whereabouts and well-being, with the United Nations also calling for a fully transparent investigation into Peng’s claims.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki had said President Joe Biden’s administration wanted China to “provide independent, verifiable proof” of Peng’s whereabouts and expressed “deep concern” about the former world top-ranked doubles player.

“It would be important to have proof of her whereabouts and well-being,” Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights Office, told reporters in Geneva.

“We are calling for an investigation with full transparency into her allegation of sexual assault.”

Other tennis stars, sports bodies, governments and human rights defenders have added to the growing clamour for information.

China has repeatedly refused to comment on the case.

Earlier this week, state-run CGTN published a screenshot, also on Twitter, of what it said was an email written by Peng to the head and officials of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), the top world body for the sport.

In it, Peng claims that her earlier accusations are “not true” and says she is “resting at home and everything is fine”.

But doubts were flagged about the awkward language and the cursor visible in the screenshot.

The head of the WTA has said the organisation is willing to lose hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Chinese business in one of its biggest markets to ensure Peng’s wellbeing.

On Friday Novak Djokovic said he backed the WTA’s threat and its president “absolutely”.

“The whole tennis community needs to back her up and her family and make sure that she is safe and sound,” said the 20-time Grand Slam champion.

“If you have tournaments on Chinese soil without resolving this situation it would be a little bit strange,” he added.

Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka have also voiced their concerns for one of China’s greatest ever players.

Peng, 35, represented China in the Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro Olympics and won gold for China at the 2010 Asian Games.

She is a former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion.