One of China’s most recognizable sports stars, Peng publicly accused a former top Communist Party official, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, of coercing her into sex at his home three years ago in a since-deleted social media post dated November 2.
Peng was immediately muffled by blanket censorship and disappeared from public view for more than two weeks, prompting the women’s tennis world to demand answers as to her whereabouts — as well as a full investigation into her allegations against Zhang.
Amid growing global outcry, individuals working for Chinese government-controlled media and the state sports system released a number of “proof of life” photos and videos of Peng.
On November 21, the IOC said in a statement that its president, Thomas Bach, held a 30-minute video call with three-time Olympian Peng, alongside a Chinese sports official and an additional IOC representative, and said that during the call, Peng appeared to be “doing fine” and was “relaxed,” saying she “would like to have her privacy respected.” The IOC did not explain how the video call with Peng was organized and has not made the video publicly available.
Summarizing the second call, the IOC said that it had offered the tennis star “wide-ranging support,” and pledged to stay in regular touch with her, adding that it had “already agreed on a personal meeting in January.”
The IOC also told CNN that it wasn’t providing any visual asset of Wednesday’s second video call amid growing skepticism about how freely Peng has been allowed to communicate, as well as concern for her safety.
Later on Thursday, a WTA spokeswoman told CNN it had received a new email from Peng.
According to the WTA, this is the third email its had from Peng.
Reacting to this latest email, a WTA spokeswoman said that the organization stands by its decision to suspend tournaments in China.
China hits back at boycott
WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon said that the decision was based on the “unacceptable” response of Chinese officials, including rushing to censor Peng’s allegations and ignoring calls for a full and transparent investigation.
“In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault,” Simon said.
“Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”
Beijing fired back at the decision, with China’s state-run outlet, the Global Times, accusing the WTA of “setting a bad example for the entire sporting world,” in a highly critical editorial published Thursday.
The piece called the WTA’s decision an “exaggerated show,” intended to act as “a lever of Western public opinion against China’s political system.”
China “firmly opposes any act that politicizes sports,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin added during a briefing Thursday.
“Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way. While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation,” Simon said.
Longtime IOC member Dick Pound said the “unanimous conclusion” by those on the November 21 call with Peng is that she is fine, adding he has been “puzzled” by the international reaction to the call.
Chinese authorities have not acknowledged Peng’s allegations against Zhang — who has faded from public life since his retirement in 2018 — and there is no indication an investigation is underway. It remains unclear if Peng has reported her allegations to the police.
Players signal support for WTA
Men’s world No. 1 Novak Djokovic said he supported the WTA’s boycott.
“I support fully WTA’s stance because we don’t have enough information about Shuai Peng and her well-being,” Djokovic said in Madrid following a Davis Cup tie. “It’s life of a tennis player that is in question here, so we, as the tennis community, need to stand together.”
Zhang has kept a low profile and faded from public life since his retirement in 2018, and there is no public information relating to his current whereabouts.
Before retiring as vice premier, Zhang was the head of a Chinese government working group for the Beijing Games. In the role, he inspected venues, visited athletes, unveiled official emblems and held meetings to coordinate preparation work.
Zhang previously met with IOC President Bach on at least one occasion, with the two being photographed together shaking hands in the Chinese capital in 2016.
CNN’s Aleks Klosk contributed reporting.