Chinese state media have posted pictures of missing tennis star Peng Shuai wishing fans a “happy weekend”, while a video claiming to show the 35-year-old at a restaurant was also released.
The former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion hasn’t been seen since November 3 after accusing a former top Chinese government official of sexual abuse.
Two-time Grand Slam champ Peng claimed that ex-vice premier Zhang Gaoli, 75, forced her to have sex with him three years ago.
Earlier this week, Chinese state media released an email they said was from Peng, where she insisted that she is “safe” and her sexual abuse allegations were not true. However, the tennis world didn’t believe the email was actually sent by her.
And now Chinese state TV reporter Shen Shiwei has tweeted pictures of Peng from her WeChat account, showing her with cuddly toys, The Sun reports.
Captioning the photos, he said: “Peng Shuai’s WeChat moments just posted three latest photos and said ‘Happy weekend’.
“Her friend shared the three photos and the screenshot of Peng’s WeChat moments.”
One image shows the smiling player with a cat in her arms, stuffed animals, a trophy and a Chinese flag visible in the background.
Another shows a selfie of Peng with an image of Winnie the Pooh in the background. The children’s character is often censored online in China because critics say Chinese leader Xi Jinping resembles the cartoon.
Footage was also released by Chinese state media claiming to show Peng eating at a restaurant with friends on Saturday night.
In one of two videos posted on Twitter by Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of the Global Times newspaper, Peng appears to be walking into a restaurant wearing a coat, knit cap and face mask.
In the other video clip, Peng is maskless sitting at a table chatting with people over a meal.
Hu wrote in English on Twitter that the second video shows: “Peng Shuai was having dinner with her coach and friends in a restaurant. The video content clearly shows they are shot on Saturday Beijing time.”
The conversation revolved around “tennis matches” and a man sitting with Peng and two other women says “tomorrow is November 20th”. But one of the women quickly interrupts him to say, “It is the 21st” or Sunday.
The chat appears to be staged. It was filmed in the evening hours with a mobile phone and Peng seems to be relaxed in the footage.
However, women’s tennis governing body the WTA — which has been strong in repeatedly demanding proof of Peng’s wellbeing — isn’t satisfied.
“I am glad to see the videos released by China state-run media that appear to show Peng Shuai at a restaurant in Beijing,” WTA chief Steve Simon said in a statement.
“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.
“As I have stated from the beginning, I remain concerned about Peng Shuai’s health and safety and that the allegation of sexual assault is being censored and swept under the rug. I have been clear about what needs to happen and our relationship with China is at a crossroads.”
Federer speaks up as players voice concerns
Many tennis players have spoken up and shared social media posts with the hashtag #whereispengshuai to put pressure on the Chinese government to provide proof of her safety.
Roger Federer addressed the matter on Sunday, telling Sky Italia: “She’s one of our tennis champions, a former world No. 1, and clearly it’s concerning. I hope she’s safe.
“The tennis family sticks together and I’ve always told my children as well that the tennis family is my second family. I’ve been on tour for 20-25 years and I love the tour, I love the people that are there, (they) are special, the players as well, and she’s one of them.
“I’ve been in touch with (ATP Tour) president Andrea Gaudenzi as well the last days, just to get any news, any feedback of the developing story. I just want her to be OK and that she’s safe and that we hear something hopefully soon.”
British star Andy Murray tweeted “Where is Peng Shuai?” while Serena Williams posted on social media: “I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai.
“I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.
“Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time.”
Four-time grand slam champion Naomi Osaka is another high-profile star who has weighed in. “Not sure if you’ve been following the news but I was recently informed of a fellow tennis player that has gone missing shortly after revealing that she has been sexually abused,” she wrote on social media.
“Censorship is never OK at any cost, I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and OK.
“I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way.”
Men’s world No. 1 Novak Djokovic is another who has voiced concerns.
In a bold stand, Steve Simon has confirmed the WTA would reconsider taking the women’s tennis tour to China, — a brave threat given the financial implications it could have.
With The Sun and AFP