We take stock of the mysteries of the Peng Shuai case, the Chinese tennis player who disappeared and then reappeared

Videos and snapshots: A smiling Peng Shuai appeared on social media this weekend as international pressure grows on China to get information on the Chinese player’s fate.

IOC President Thomas Bach spoke during a videoconference of “thirty minutes” Sunday with her, announced the Olympic body in a statement.

The Olympic Committee clarified that it “had explained that she was safe and sound at her home in Beijing but that she would like her privacy to be respected”, during the call, which also brought together the president of the Athletes’ Commission Emma Terho, and the Chinese Li Lingwei, member of the Olympic Committee.

The Olympic body also indicates that the 35-year-old player, former world No. 1 in doubles and star in her country, wishes “spending time with friends and family at the moment”.

Forced sex

This is – a priori – the first direct exchange between the player and officials located outside China since the case concerning her broke in early November, after a message posted on the social network Weibo on November 2.

The post accused former top Chinese leader Zhang Gaoli, a powerful ex-Communist Party official 40 years his senior, of forced sex, before being quickly suppressed by Chinese authorities.

Peng Shuai, 35, former world number 1 doubles player and star in her country, has not come forward publicly and freely since accusing Zhang Gaoli, a powerful ex-Communist Party official 40 years her senior , to have forced her to have sex.

The #MeToo movement had never yet reached the highest levels of the ruling Communist Party in China before the publication attributed to Peng Shuai.

It was quickly removed from the Weibo platform and concerns about its security have grown ever since.

Appearance at a tournament in Beijing

Hours earlier on Sunday, Peng Shuai appeared publicly – also for the first time since the accusations – at a tennis tournament in Beijing, official photos from the event show.

Wearing a navy sports jacket and white sweatpants, Peng Shuai appears in photos from the Fila Kids Junior Tennis Challenger Finals, posted on the official China Open Weibo account.

Following a global outcry, including from tennis stars and the United Nations, Chinese state media released a series of footage purportedly showing all is well with the sportswoman.

A video of the event, posted to Twitter by Hu Xijin, influential editor of the Global Times, shows Peng standing in the middle of a group of guests whose names are announced to the applauding audience.

A Global Times reporter tweeted another video showing Peng signing autographs for children at what appears to be the same stadium before posing for photos with them.

A dinner with friends

Hu Xijin, who claims a certain proximity to power, also posted two videos of the player on Saturday evening. “having dinner with her trainer and friends in a restaurant” in Beijing and tours the same day, he said.

It remains impossible to confirm the location or the conditions in which the images were shot. And Hu Xijin made no reference to it on his Weibo account in Chinese.

In the images, Peng Shuai is surrounded by two women with whom she shares a meal and wine in a noisy place. A man is seated opposite the player and the conversation is about “matches”.

“Tomorrow is November 20” (Saturday), he said, before being interrupted by one of the guests: “It’s the 21” (tomorrow Sunday).

The exchange, which seems to be staged, is filmed in the evening on a cell phone by an unidentified person. Peng Shuai appears relaxed.

China’s silence

In a statement released on Saturday, WTA President Steve Simon found “positive” to see the athlete, but “video alone is not enough” to show that she is “free of his decisions and his actions”, he estimated.

The WTA has threatened to end lucrative contracts with China if it does not hear from Peng’s safety.

Already Wednesday, the Chinese public television CGTN had sown the disorder by revealing a screenshot of an email attributed to Peng Shuai.

The channel intended for a foreign audience then said that the Chinese player had personally sent it to the management of the WTA, which manages the professional women’s tennis circuit.

Four allegedly recent snapshots of the tennis champion were subsequently published by the Twitter account @shen_shiwei, labeled “media affiliated with the Chinese state” by the social network.

AFP was unable to independently establish when these photos were taken and requests for an explanation from the author of the account went unanswered.

The Chinese government has repeatedly declined to comment on the matter. Discussions of the charges are blocked on China’s tightly controlled internet.

International pressure

A growing number of voices in the sports world and beyond want to know where and how Peng is.

The UK on Saturday night urged China to “urgently provide verifiable evidence of its security and whereabouts”, as did France on Sunday.

The UN has also asked for proof that she is doing well and several countries, including the United States, have expressed “concern” as the hashtag #WhereisPengShuai (# WhereestPengShuai) has spread like wildfire on social networks.

The biggest names in tennis have spoken on this affair, such as Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Naomi Osaka.