NYT > Sports
Almost two weeks after people around the world started asking, “Where’s Peng Shuai?”, Two questionable videos appeared on social media on Saturday of what appears to be the Chinese tennis star in a restaurant.
The videos were shared on Twitter by the editor of a state newspaper, but the seemingly unnatural conversation in a video and the unclear location and dates raised questions about Peng’s safety and whether she appeared on the videos of her own free will. A third video allegedly showing Peng at a tennis match in Beijing was released about 10 hours later on Sunday.
In a social media post earlier this month, Peng accused a former high-ranking government official of sexually abusing her. Following the allegation, the Chinese government removed almost all references to Peng from the country’s social media and Peng disappeared from public life. Her absence sparked outrage around the world, especially among top officials and tennis stars.
Steve Simon, executive director of WTA, the women’s professional tennis tour, was particularly harsh, calling for verifiable evidence that Peng is safe and able to move around society as she pleases and that officials fully investigate her allegations. Should this not be the case, Simon said that the WTA would stop hosting tennis tournaments in China.
On Saturday after the videos surfaced, Simon continued to express frustration at the inability to independently monitor Peng’s welfare, saying that the “organization’s relationship with China is at a crossroads”.
“While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear whether she is free and able to make decisions and take action on her own, without coercion or outside interference,” he said. “This video alone is not enough.”
Peng, 35, is the only Chinese female tennis player to have achieved world number one in women’s doubles.
The video clips were posted on the Twitter account of Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the influential Communist Party newspaper The Global Times, who described them as showing Peng having dinner with her trainer and friends on Saturday.
He wrote that he “acquired” the clips but gave no explanation, and the clips appeared to be staged to set the date. In the first clip, the man who is supposed to be Peng’s trainer discusses plans with her and asks: “Isn’t it November 20th tomorrow?” A woman sitting next to Peng corrects him and says it is November 21st. Then he repeats the date twice.
In the second clip, a woman with a mask, presumably Peng, is shown entering a restaurant. The camera pauses on a sign showing the date of the last cleaning, a common sight in Chinese buildings since the SARS epidemic. But only the month of November is visible; the date seems to be hidden.
Hu posted a third video hours later, describing it as the opening ceremony of a teen tennis match final in Beijing on Sunday that Peng “showed up” for.
On Friday, a journalist from another Chinese media company posted pictures allegedly showing Peng in a bedroom surrounded by soft toys. Peng looked younger in these photos than in more recent pictures of her, and there was nothing to verify when they were taken.
Also on Friday, Simon wrote to China’s Ambassador to the United States reiterating his grievances and threats to remove the nine tournaments the WTA is hosting in China, including the prestigious WTA Finals in Shenzhen. All tournaments in China have been canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The WTA final ended in Guadalajara, Mexico on Wednesday.
If Peng is unable to speak freely, Simon wrote, “We are very concerned that each of our players is safe in China.”
The men’s tennis tour has raised concerns but has threatened to withdraw its tournaments from China.
The Peng controversy comes a little more than two months before the Beijing Winter Olympics begins, and it creates the specter of one of the world’s greatest sporting events taking place in a country where a three-time Olympic tennis star is missing.
The International Olympic Committee has declared that “silent diplomacy” offers the best chance of resolving the situation. On Friday, Dick Pound, an IOC member, told Reuters that if the situation with Peng “is not sensibly resolved very soon, it could get out of hand”. He added, “I doubt that this will escalate into a suspension of the Olympics. But you never know. “
Simon spent more than a week establishing personal contact with Peng through a series of phone numbers and other digital contacts but was unable to speak to her.
Saturday’s videos were the latest media released by a China-controlled company trying to keep Peng safe. China’s state broadcaster reportedly released a message from her earlier this week.
“Hello everyone, this is Peng Shuai,” it said. The allegation of sexual assault raised a few weeks ago is untrue. “I am neither missing nor unsure,” the message said. “I rested at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for looking after me. “
Simon quickly condemned the publication of the news.
“I find it hard to believe that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to it,” he said.
Peng accused Zhang Gaoli, 75, a former vice prime minister of China, of sexually abusing her in his home three years ago. In a post on her verified account on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, Peng wrote that the attack took place after Zhang invited her to play tennis at his house. “I was so scared that afternoon,” she said. “I never agreed and cried all the time.”
She also described having a friendly relationship with Zhang.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the Biden administration is following the situation closely and is “deeply concerned”. She asked the Chinese government to provide “independent, verifiable evidence” of Peng’s whereabouts.
In the past few days, several notable names in tennis have joined the choir calling for proof that peng is safe.
“We have to see her in a live video holding up a today’s newspaper, or better yet, hitting balls,” said Patrick McEnroe, the former player and ESPN commentator, in an interview on Friday. McEnroe trained Peng at the beginning of her career in World Team Tennis.
“If none of that happens and the people I talk to say, if the Chinese really don’t care what we think and we never hear or have a clue from Peng, the only real way out is that professional tennis is everything takes tournaments out of China, ”he said.
Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep and Coco Gauff are among the current players who posted on social media about their concerns about Peng. Novak Djokovic shared a statement from the Professional Tennis Players Association, of which he is a co-founder.
Martina Navratilova, the former master who defected from Czechoslovakia in 1975 to escape the communist government, also comments on Peng.
“I don’t believe a word they say,” said Navratilova in an interview on Saturday about the Chinese government. “A lot is deceived here.”