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US demands ‘verifiable proof’ of tennis player Peng Shuai’s well-being after she disappears following claim of sexual abuse against Chinese ex-official

November 19, 2021 GMT

The United States on Friday joined growing calls for China to provide details about the well-being of tennis pro Peng Shuai, after she disappeared from the public eye following an accusation of sexual assault against a former senior Chinese official.

The administration of US President Joe Biden was “deeply concerned” about reports of Peng’s disappearance, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a news briefing.

“We join in the calls for PRC authorities to provide independent and verifiable proof of her whereabouts and that she is safe,” she said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

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The appeal marks the highest profile appeal to date for more information about Peng’s situation, coming atop similar calls from prominent athletes, sporting bodies, and human rights groups.

Earlier this month Peng, 35, wrote in an explosive social media post that a former senior Chinese government leader had pressured her into sex. The post was swiftly deleted, and any discussion of the case since has been met with blanket censorship.

“We know the PRC has zero tolerance for criticism and a record of silencing those that speak out, and we continue to condemn those practices,” said Psaki.

“Any report of sexual assault should be investigated and we support a woman’s ability to speak out and seek accountability, whether here or around the world,” she said.

Earlier this week state run broadcaster CGTN shared a screenshot of an alleged email by Peng in which she said claims of sexual assault were not true and said she was not missing but “resting at home”.

The release of the email was met with widespread scepticism, and only added fuel to calls for more information about Peng’s well-being and a thorough investigation into her allegations.

Women’s Tennis Association chief Steve Simon said he had a “hard time” believing that the email was written by Peng or that she stood by its content, adding that multiple attempts to reach her through various channels had been unsuccessful.

In a later interview with CNN, he said the WTA was willing to pull the plug on its lucrative business operations in China unless Peng’s original accusations were properly investigated.

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On Friday, images of a purported WeChat post by Peng surfaced online, including pictures of her smiling and text saying “happy weekend”. Like Wednesday’s email, those images were released by Chinese state media, posted to Twitter by a journalist with CGTN.

The case of Peng, a three-time Olympian, has put further pressure on Beijing over its hosting of the upcoming Winter Olympics and Paralympics, dovetailing with growing calls for diplomatic boycotts of the event over the Chinese government’s human rights record.

In a letter to Biden on Thursday, House Representative Jim Banks, Republican of Indiana, urged the administration to raise Peng’s case with Chinese officials and warn them that her silencing would have a “negative impact on China hosting the Winter Olympics of 2022, and will only exacerbate the movement to boycott the games”.

Biden indicated for the first time on Thursday his administration was considering a diplomatic boycott of the games.

Unlike the WTA, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has not joined calls for an investigation into Peng’s claims, and said following the release of the email screenshot that it was “encouraged by assurances” that she was safe. In a later statement, it said that “quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature”.

IOC’s refusal to weigh in on the matter has further angered China hawks in Congress, who have long called on the organisation to relocate the upcoming games over China’s alleged human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

“The IOC’s mission includes ‘the protection of athletes from all forms of harassment and abuse’,” said Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, on Thursday. “It is time for the IOC to relocate the Games, even if that means postponing them, and treat the Chinese Communist Party like the evil, abusive regime that it is.”

Additional reporting by Jacob Fromer

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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