Hong Kong — Chinese tennis starafter almost 20 days of silence and global concern that she may have been detained. But images showing Peng over the weekend don’t appear to have eased fears for her safety that began when she disappeared from public view following an accusation of sexual assault against one of the Chinese Communist Party’s former top leaders.
As CBS News correspondent Ramy Inocencio reports, Peng’s first real-time contact with the outside world in almost three weeks came over the weekend in the form of a video call with Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee. During the 30-minute call, Peng assured Bach that she was “safe and well,” according to the IOC.
The IOC released only a single still image from that video chat, showing Peng smiling, along with a statement that said she was at home in Beijing and wanted her privacy to be respected.
It came after the release over the weekend of a seemingly scripted and stage-managed video of Peng with her tennis coach, with forced references to the date of November 21, that was posted to Twitter by the editor of China’s Global Times tabloid, which is closely allied with the ruling Communist Party. There was also some video of her waving to spectators at the China Open on Sunday morning, and some photos of Peng playing with a cat.
All the new images do appear to show Peng over the weekend, but they have only called more into question whether she has been acting under duress.
On November 2, the 35-year-old former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champ, who is also a three-time Olympian, publicly accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, a close ally of Chinese President Xi Jinping, of sexual coercion about three years ago.
The four-paragraph note posted by Peng’s on Chinese social media platform Weibo was quickly deleted. All references to her name were still being censored online in China through Sunday.
An email allegedly sent by Peng to the head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), aired on China’s state media, retracted everything. The author wrote: “The allegation of sexual assault is not true. I’m not missing nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.”
WTA boss Steve Simon, to whom the letter was addressed, took little comfort from the email, saying it only raised further his “concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.”
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” he said last week.
Following Peng’s video chat with the IOC boss over the weekend, the chair of the Olympic body’s Athletes’ Commission, Emma Terho, said in a statement that she was “relieved to see that Peng Shuai was doing fine, which was our main concern. She appeared to be relaxed. I offered her our support and to stay in touch at any time of her convenience, which she obviously appreciated.”
But the WTA, which along with the U.S. and the United Nations had demanded proof of Peng’s well-being and an investigation into her allegation of sexual assault, indicated that Peng’s private video chat with the IOC had failed to allay concerns. The organization repeated its previous calls for a full, transparent investigation into both Peng’s circumstances and her assault allegation, “without censorship.”
China risk analyst and CBS News contributor Isaac Stone Fish was also unconvinced, and he questioned the IOC’s willingness to participate as a third-hand conveyor of the information.
“It’s certainly quite suspicious,” Stone Fish told CBS News, “that the International Olympic Committee — an organization known for its close ties with Beijing — was the Western conduit for [the] alleged video chat with Peng, as opposed to, say, the Women’s Tennis Association, which has been a lot more critical.”
The Winter Olympics in Beijing are set to begin in just a few months, on February 4. The U.S. and other Western nations have already made it clear that they could formally boycott the Games, declining to send senior officials to participate in the opening ceremony.
The WTA has threatened to pull out of a huge deal with China to hold its championships in the country through 2028. WTA chief Simon said last week that the organization was willing to sacrifice the agreement with China — which he’s estimated at about $1 billion in total value — if Peng’s circumstances were not completely verified.
At the very least, the world now does at least have an answer to the question, which has been adopted as a hashtag on social media, “#WhereisPengShuai?”
It remained unclear on Monday whether Beijing would launch a probe into Peng’s accusations of sexual assault by the senior communist party member. It has become the highest-reaching allegation of China’s “MeToo” movement to date. But with Peng smiling and asking for privacy on China’s state-run media, it didn’t appear that any investigation was imminent.