Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai made an appearance at a Beijing tennis tournament on Sunday, as per official event photos, following mounting international pressure for information pertaining to her well-being.

As per the photos published on the official Weibo account of the China Open, Peng can be seen adorning a navy sports jacket and white track pants at the Fila Kids Junior Tennis Challenger Finals, marking her first public appearance since the heavy censoring of her sexual abuse accusations on the Chinese internet.

Peng is a two-time Grand Slam doubles champion who had not been seen publicly following her accusations of sexual assault earlier this month alleging that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, now in his 70s, “forced” her into sex amid an on-off relationship spanned across several years.

The allegations and Peng’s disappearance resulted in a global outcry, including from tennis superstars and the United Nations. The Chinese state media reporters have since then released a flurry of footage to show that everything is well with Peng.

The Global Times newspaper editor Hu Xijin shared a  video from the event on Twitter, showing Peng standing in a stadium among a group of guests whose names are announced to a modicum of applause.

A Global Times reporter tweeted another video depicting Peng signing autographs for children at what looks like the same stadium before posing for photos with them.

Hu continued and posted two other videos on Saturday, one of them shows Peng walking into a restaurant wearing a coat, a face mask, and a knit cap, while she is seen sitting at a table without a mask talking to people over a meal in the second video.

Hu wrote on Twitter in English that the second video shows “Peng Shuai were having dinner with her coach and friends in a restaurant. The video content clearly shows they are shot on Saturday Beijing time.”

The conversation was about “tennis matches”. A man sitting with Peng said, “tomorrow is November 20”. But one of the women quickly corrects him, saying, “It is the 21st”, implying that the video was filmed on Saturday.

The conversation seems staged. It was filmed during evening hours using a mobile phone. Peng appears relaxed in the footage.

Insufficient proof

Peng’s claims against Zhang were the first time China’s #MeToo movement has touched the highest echelons of the ruling Communist Party. Her accusations were quickly scrubbed from the Twitter-like Weibo platform, triggering concerns regarding her safety.

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) boss Steve Simon, talking about the restaurant videos said that he was glad to see the images but “it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference”.

Simon said, “This video alone is insufficient”.

“I have been clear about what needs to happen and our relationship with China is at a crossroads.”

The WTA has threatened to end lucrative contracts with China unless it is assured of Peng’s safety.

Earlier last week, the state-run CGTN tweeted a screenshot of what it says was an email from Peng to the WTA saying her accusations were not true and that “everything is fine”.

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

Later photos of a smiling Peng emerged on Friday on the verified Twitter account @shen_shiwei, labeled Chinese state-affiliated media by the social network.

The authenticity of the images could not be determined, and the user did not respond to AFP’s request for comment.

These were followed by the videos posted on Saturday and Sunday.

Beijing’s government has repeatedly refused to comment regarding the matter.

Discussion regarding Peng’s accusations is blocked on China’s tightly controlled internet.

Verifiable proof

A growing number of voices in the sports world and beyond want to know if Peng is safe.

The White House has expressed “deep concern” about Peng, with US President Joe Biden’s press secretary saying his administration wanted China to “provide independent, verifiable proof” of her whereabouts.

Britain’s foreign office said it was “extremely concerned” and urged China to provide verifiable evidence.

The UN is insisting on a fully transparent investigation into the claims made by Peng.

Some of the biggest names in tennis have spoken out about the case, including Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, and Naomi Osaka.

Superstar Roger Federer also spoke up on Saturday, saying, “She’s one of our tennis champions, a former world number one. Clearly, it’s concerning. I hope she’s safe.”

Peng represented China at 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.

The story was filed by the News Desk.
The Desk can be reached at info@thecorrespondent.com.pk.

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