The Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai said she was safe and well in a video call on Sunday, the International Olympic Committee has said, amid growing international demands for assurances that she is free and not under threat.
In a statement, the IOC said Peng had spoken to its president, Thomas Bach, for 30 minutes. “She explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time,” it said in a statement.
“That is why she prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now. Nevertheless, she will continue to be involved in tennis, the sport she loves so much.”
Photos and videos of Peng at a tournament in Beijing earlier on Sunday had done little to dampen global concerns about her wellbeing, following a nearly three-week public absence after she alleged that a former senior Chinese official sexually assaulted her.
The call – with Bach, the athletes’ commission chair, Emma Terho, and IOC member Li Lingwei, a former vice-president of the Chinese Tennis Association – appears to be Peng’s first direct contact with sports officials outside China since she disappeared from public view on 2 November.
Pressure was growing on Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, to toughen his stance towards China, with senior MPs calling for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
The IOC has been criticised for being relatively silent in public as concern for Peng grew in the past week. It insists it has pursued a “quiet diplomacy” policy with the 2022 Olympics host nation. The Beijing Winter Games open in February.
Bach invited Peng to join him at a dinner when he arrives in Beijing in January “which she gladly accepted”, the IOC said. Terho and Li were also invited.
“I was relieved to see that Peng Shuai was doing fine, which was our main concern,” Terho said in the IOC statement. Terho, a retired ice hockey player from Finland, represents athletes on the IOC executive board.
“She appeared to be relaxed,” Terho said. “I offered her our support and to stay in touch at any time of her convenience, which she obviously appreciated.”
Peng, 35, had not been seen or heard from since she accused the country’s former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her. The allegations, which she made on the Chinese social media site Weibo, were quickly deleted from the platform. Her silence, as well as blanket censorship inside China of her accusations, had prompted calls across the world for information on her whereabouts and wellbeing, including threats by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) to pull all its tennis tournaments that are scheduled to be held in China.
After the IOC video was released, a spokesperson for the WTA and chairman Steve Simon said, “It was good to see Peng Shuai in recent videos, but they don’t alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion. This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern.”
On Sunday, Hu Xijin, the editor of the state tabloid the Global Times, posted video of Peng attending a junior tennis tournament where she waved at the crowd. Hu said the footage was from the opening ceremony of a final in Beijing on Sunday.
A further clip of Peng signing tennis balls for children as “a way of inspiring more kids to play tennis” emerged from other state media outlets. It followed earlier footage released by Hu that showed Peng eating at a Beijing restaurant. The clip appeared staged, with people at the table carefully specifying the day’s date being 20 November.
Other photographs of the former world No 1 doubles player at the tennis match were published on the WeChat page of the China Open tournament, reported Reuters, which said it could not verify them. On Friday, images of a smiling Peng emerged on a Chinese state-affiliated Twitter account. The authenticity of the four undated photographs also could not be verified.
The rush of videos and photographs were presented as evidence that she was safe and not under duress. But without any sign of Peng being able to speak freely or the WTA being able to contact her, the images were largely dismissed.
A spokesperson for the tennis body said the latest footage was “insufficient” and did not address its concerns. Responding to the restaurant video, Simon, the head of the WTA, said: “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.”
Hu is one of the only Chinese state voices to have publicly spoken on Peng, but he kept his comments to English-language posts on Twitter and does not mention any specifics. On Friday, he referred to her allegations as “the things people talk about”, while on Saturday he claimed Peng was at home “freely” and did not want to be disturbed.
“She will show up in public and participate in some activities soon,” he added.
The UN, the US and UK are among those to have demanded China provide “verifiable evidence” of Peng’s whereabouts and wellbeing. On Sunday, France added to the chorus, its foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, called on Beijing to let her speak publicly to clarify her situation and warned that there could be diplomatic consequences if this did not happen.
The global campaign over Peng’s treatment has escalated, and has raised questions about sport’s balancing act between catering to the Chinese market and human rights advocacy.
The WTA has been the most vocal in its support for Peng, saying it is willing to jeopardise its lucrative deals with China to secure her safety as well as an investigation into her accusations. On Saturday, the chair of the ATP, Andrea Gaudenzi, said the latest developments were deeply unsettling, and the issue was “bigger than tennis”. The ATP has not made any commercial threats.
International tennis stars have also called for answers, including Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Martina Navratilova, Novak Djokovic, Naomi Osaka, and Andy Murray.
The Chinese government has a long history of disappearing and detaining those who speak out against the state. Last week, the state broadcaster CGTN tweeted a block of text it claimed was an email Peng sent to the head of the WTA. But the text was widely regarded as faked or potentially forced, as there was no evidence she had sent it herself and the language of it emulated previous forced confessions broadcast by CGTN.