Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai appeared at a tennis tournament in Beijing on Sunday, according to official photos from the event, after international pressure increased for information about his condition.
Wearing a navy sports jacket and white sweatpants, Peng Shuai appears in photos from the Fila Kids Junior Tennis Challenger Finals, posted on the official China Open Weibo account. This is his first public appearance since his accusations of sexual abuse were widely censored on the Chinese internet.
Peng Shuai, 35, former world number 1 doubles player and star in her country, had not been seen publicly since she accused Zhang Gaoli, a powerful ex-Communist Party official 40 years her senior, of having forced her to have sex during a discontinuous relationship lasting several years.
Following a global outcry, including from tennis stars and the United Nations, Chinese state media published a series of footage purported to show all is well with the athlete.
A video of the event, posted on Twitter by Hu Xijin, influential editor-in-chief of the Global Times, shows Peng standing in the middle of a group of guests whose names are announced to the applauding audience.
A journalist from Global Times tweeted another video showing Peng signing autographs for children at what appears to be the same stadium before posing for photos with them.
Mr. Hu, who claims a certain closeness to power, also posted two videos in the evening of the player “having dinner with her coach and friends in a restaurant” in Beijing and shot the same day, he said.
AFP was unable to confirm the location or the conditions in which the footage was shot. And Hu Xijin made no reference to it on his Weibo account in Chinese.
An exchange that seems to be staged
In the images, Peng Shuai is surrounded by two women with whom she shares a meal and wine in a noisy place. A man is seated opposite the player and the conversation is about “matches”.
“Tomorrow is November 20” (Saturday), he said, before being interrupted by one of the guests: “It is November 21” (tomorrow Sunday).
The exchange, which seems to be staged, is filmed in the evening on a cell phone by an unidentified person. Peng Shuai appears relaxed.
The Chinese #MeToo movement had never yet reached the highest levels of the ruling Communist Party before the publication attributed to Peng.
These were quickly removed from the Weibo platform and concerns about Zhang’s safety have grown ever since.
In a statement released on Saturday, WTA President Steve Simon found it “positive” to see the athlete, but “video alone is not enough” to show that she is “free in her decisions and actions. “, He estimated.
The WTA has threatened to end lucrative contracts with China if it does not hear from Peng’s safety.
Already Wednesday, the Chinese public television CGTN had sown the disorder by revealing a screenshot of an email attributed to Peng Shuai.
The channel aimed at a foreign audience said that the Chinese player had personally sent it to the management of the WTA, which manages the professional women’s tennis circuit.
On CNN, his boss Steve Simon expressed Thursday his perplexity vis-à-vis the message in which the champion declares “false” his accusations against Zhang Gaoli.
“I don’t believe that’s the truth at all,” Simon said, calling the email “staged”.
Four allegedly recent snapshots of the tennis champion were subsequently published by the Twitter account @shen_shiwei, labeled “media affiliated with the Chinese state” by the social network.
AFP was unable to independently establish when these photos were taken and requests for an explanation from the author of the account went unanswered.
Silence of the power of Beijing
The Chinese government has repeatedly declined to comment on the matter. Discussions of the charges are blocked on China’s tightly controlled internet.
A growing number of voices in the sports world and beyond want to know where and how Peng is.
The UK on Saturday night urged China to “urgently provide verifiable evidence of its security and whereabouts.”
The UN has also asked for proof that she is doing well, and several countries, including the United States and France, have expressed “concern”, while the hashtag #WhereisPengShuai (# WhereestPengShuai) has spread as wildfire on social networks.
Some of the biggest names in tennis have spoken out on the affair, including Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka.
Roger Federer also spoke on Saturday, telling Sky News: “She is one of our tennis champions, a former world number one. It is clear that this is worrying. I hope she is safe ”.