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Almost as abruptly as she had vanished, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai reappeared in public view over the weekend.
Since Friday evening, a steady stream of photos and videos purporting to show a smiling Peng going about her life in Beijing have surfaced on Twitter – all posted by individuals working for Chinese government-controlled media and the state sport system, on a platform blocked in China.
The apparent propaganda push was followed Sunday by a video call between Peng and International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach, during which the three-time Olympian insisted she is “safe and well, living at her home in Beijing” and “would like to have her privacy respected,” according to a statement from the IOC.
The flurry of “proof of life” videos came amid a firestorm of global concern for Peng, who disappeared from the public eye for more than two weeks after taking to social media to accuse former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex at his home – an explosive and politically sensitive allegation that triggered blanket censorship in China.
While Peng’s public reappearances may allay some of the worst fears about her immediate safety and well-being, they have failed to quell broader concerns about her freedoms and growing calls for a full investigation into her sexual assault allegations.
“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,” a spokesperson for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) told CNN in a statement, following Peng’s call with the IOC.
Human rights advocates who have long followed Beijing’s silencing campaigns are also unconvinced.
“What we have here is essentially a state-controlled narrative: only the government and its affiliated media are generating and distributing the content about Peng’s story,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“While it is possible that Peng is well, the history of the Chinese government disappearing people and then making videos of them to prove that they are unharmed when it is, in fact, the opposite, should make us worried about Peng’s safety,” she added.
The video clips appear to be specifically – yet crudely – crafted to show that Peng is “free” and living a “normal” life.
In footage released on Saturday, Peng was seen out to dinner with several people state media journalists have described as “her coach and friends.” The clips made repeated, deliberate references to the dates, while Peng kept nodding to the man speaking next to her, not saying anything.
None of the videos made even the vaguest mention of Peng’s sexual assault allegations against Zhang. Instead, they focused on her smiles and apparent good-spirits – which state media propagandists were eager to highlight.
“Can any girl fake such sunny smile under pressure?” asked Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of state-run tabloid the Global Times, in a tweet Sunday, accompanying a clip of a smiley Peng signing larged-sized tennis balls for children at a junior tennis match in Beijing.
“Those who suspect Peng Shuai is under duress, how dark they must be inside. There must be many, many forced political performances in their countries,” Hu wrote on Twitter.
The Global Times, like other government-controlled media outlets in China, has made no reference to Peng’s apparent disappearance, nor her allegations against Zhang. Hu has also been careful on Twitter not to mention the reason why Peng is in the spotlight, referring to it only obliquely as “the thing people talked about.”
Chinese authorities have not acknowledged Peng’s allegations against Zhang, and there is no indication an investigation is underway. It remains unclear if Peng has reported her allegations to the police.
Speaking at a news conference Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian reiterated that Peng’s accusation is not a diplomatic issue and declined to comment further.
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.
Skepticism as to Peng’s well-being especially runs high among Chinese activists who have observed from a close range how the government has silenced and coerced their peers.
“The reality is, they have huge control over Peng Shuai – to the extent that it’s enough to make her cooperate and become an actor,” alleged Lv Pin, a prominent Chinese feminist now based in New York.
“This has happened in plenty of cases in the past. Many ‘criminals’ who were forced to confess on television had to make their performances look real,” she said, referring to a series of forced confessions aired on state television, such as from Chinese human rights lawyers and the Hong Kong booksellers.
Chinese authorities have so far elected not to place Peng on state television, perhaps aware that her presence – even only on its English-language platforms – would run counter to ongoing efforts to censor all discussions around her original allegations, and thus generate more questions within China than answers.
Instead, Peng appeared in a 30-minute video call with IOC officials, accompanied by – and under the close watch of – a Chinese sports official who formerly served as the Communist Party secretary of the Tennis Administration Center of the General Administration of Sport of China.
The interview has not been reported by Chinese state media. But on its website, the IOC posted a statement and a photo of the call. It didn’t release the full video, nor explain the circumstances surrounding the virtual meeting, including how it was arranged.
And it appears that IOC officials have walked away from the meeting – at least publicly – concluding that Peng is OK.
“I was relieved to see that Peng Shuai was doing fine, which was our main concern,” said Chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission Emma Terho, who joined the video call along with Li Lingwei, the Chinese sports official.
By drawing to quick conclusions about Peng’s current state and avoiding any mention of her sexual assault allegations that ignited the whole controversy, analysts say the IOC is putting its own credibility on the line – and potentially risks becoming complicit in Beijing’s propaganda push.
“The IOC call hardly alleviates our concerns for Peng’s well-being or safety,” said Wang from the HRW.
“In fact, it begs the question of why the IOC appears to be participating in what is essentially a state-controlled narrative, as only the government and its affiliated media have been allowed to tell Peng’s story.”