BEIJING — Missing tennis star Peng Shuai reappeared in public Sunday at a youth tournament in Beijing, according to photos released by the organizer, as the ruling Communist Party tried to quell fears abroad while suppressing information in China about Peng after she accused a senior leader of sexual assault.
The post by the China Open on the Weibo social media service made no mention of Peng’s disappearance or her accusation. Three-time Olympian Peng, a former Wimbledon champion, was seen standing next to a court waving and signing commemorative tennis balls large enough for children.
The ruling party appears to be trying to defuse alarm about Peng without acknowledging her disappearance after she on Nov. 2 accused Zhang Gaoli, a member of the party’s ruling Standing Committee until 2018, of forcing her to have sex.
Peng’s disappearance and official silence in response to appeals for information prompted calls for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, a prestige event for the Communist Party. The women’s professional tour threatened to pull events out of China unless the safety of the former No. It was confirmed that the safety of No.1 doubles player would be maintained.
“Our primary concern is Peng Shuai’s safety and her well-being,” Dave Haggerty, the International Tennis Federation president and International Olympic Committee member, said in a statement Sunday. “The videos of her this weekend appear to be a positive step, but we will continue to seek direct engagement and confirmation from Peng Shuai herself that she is safe and well.”
Discussion of Peng’s accusation has been deleted from websites in China. On Friday, a government spokesperson denied that he knew about the protest. The ruling party’s internet filters also block most people in China from seeing other social media abroad and most global news outlets.
Comments on Chinese social media on Sunday criticized the Women’s Tennis Association and others who spoke up about Peng. Chinese Twitter comments poked fun at employees of state media’s inept release of Peng photos and videos this weekend, while the government was silent.
“When will the WTA get out of China?” said a comment on the Sina Weibo social media service, signed “Sleep Time.”
Peng joins a growing list of Chinese activists, businesspeople and ordinary citizens who disappeared after condemning party leaders or participating in crackdowns against corruption and pro-democracy campaigns.
Some people appear to reappear months or weeks later, without any explanation. They are advised not to divulge why they were taken into custody.
Peng’s appearance Sunday was mentioned in the final sentence of a report about the tournament on the website of the English-language Global Times, a newspaper published by the ruling party and aimed at foreign readers, but not immediately reported by other media within China.
The Global Times editor, Hu Xijin, said Saturday on Twitter, which can’t be seen by most internet users in China, that Peng “stayed in her own home freely” and would “show up in public” soon.
The Global Times has a reputation for being nationalistic. Hu tweets to critique foreign governments and highlight social and economic issues abroad.
A comment on Twitter signed bobzhang999 said, “Hu Dog, with so many photos, why don’t you let Peng Shuai talk?”
Another, signed Magician, said, “Let Peng Shuai’s parents hold a news conference.”
WTA players and other tennis professionals have voiced unusual concern about Peng. Fearing losing access to the Chinese market and other retaliation, many companies or sports associations are reluctantly confronting Beijing.
The ruling party has given no indication whether it is investigating Peng’s accusation against Gao, 75, who left the Standing Committee in 2018 and has largely disappeared from public life.
Even if Peng’s accusation is deemed valid, people in China often are jailed or face other penalties for embarrassing the party by publicizing complaints about abuses instead of going through the secretive, often unresponsive official system.
Peng, a top athlete such as Peng, is highly regarded. Their victories are celebrated by the state media as evidence of China’s strength. The party will be vigilant to ensure that they do not use its popularity and appeal to damage China’s image.
Steve Simon, the WTA’s chairman and CEO, expressed concern for Peng’s safety after Hu, the newspaper editor, posted two videos Saturday that appeared to show her in a restaurant.
“While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference. This video alone is insufficient,” Simon said. ”Our relationship with China is at a crossroads.”
The IOC has remained quiet about the status of Peng, who competed in three Olympics, helping to contribute to the IOC’s multimillion-dollar revenue from broadcasting and sponsorships.
The Olympic body’s stated policy is “quiet diplomacy.” The IOC said Saturday it would “continue our open dialogue on all levels with the Olympic movement in China.”
Asked two weeks ago about human rights in China, senior IOC member Juan Antonio Samaranch said “we are not discussing with the Chinese government anything” about that subject.
The IOC previously stated that the local organizing committee is its partner for organizing the Winter Games, and not China’s state. The Communist Party controls this committee.
Emma Terho, the newly elected head of the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission that is charged with representing the interests of Olympic athletes, said in a statement Saturday “we support the quiet diplomacy” approach favored by the IOC.
A statement was issued last week by the state TV’s foreign division in English, attributed to Peng. It retracted Zhang’s accusations. The WTA’s Simon questioned its legitimacy while others said it only increased their concern about her safety.
This report was contributed by Graham Dunbar, AP Sports Editor in Geneva.