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Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai tells Olympics chief she is safe in video call, but concerns remain

Peng met in a 30-minute videoconference with officials from the International Olympic Committee about growing concerns over her safety.

The Women's Tennis Association said Monday that it remained concerned for Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai despite a video call she held with the president of the International Olympic Committee.

There has been growing international concern about Peng, a former top-ranked doubles player, since she disappeared from the public eye after accusing a former top Chinese official of sexual assault. Photographs and videos said to show Peng at a restaurant and children's tennis tournament in Beijing, released by Chinese state media journalists and tournament organizers over the weekend, have done little to ease fears for her safety.

“It was good to see Peng Shuai in recent videos, but they don’t alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her wellbeing and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion,” a WTA spokesperson said in an email to NBC News.

The spokesperson said Peng's call with the IOC “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.”

Peng had met in a 30-minute videoconference with IOC President Thomas Bach and two other IOC officials to discuss her safety, the organization announced Sunday. It is unclear when the call took place.

"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," the IOC said. "That is why she prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now."

Emma Terho, the chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, said Peng seemed to be "doing fine" during the call.

"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."

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach talks with with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai on a video call.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach talks with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai on a video call. Greg Martin / IOC via AFP - Getty Images

Tennis stars around the world expressed concern for Peng over the last week, circulating the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai across social media. They had feared for her safety after she alleged that Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier in his 70s, sexually assaulted her during an otherwise on-off relationship while he was in office.

Peng made the accusation Nov. 2 in a post on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter. It was quickly deleted, and social media debate appeared to be quashed by censors.

Zhang was once one of China’s most powerful officials under President Xi Jinping. He retired in 2018 and was not available for comment on the subject.

NBC News did not see the post before it was deleted from Peng’s account, which has more than half a million followers. It was not clear whether she deleted the post or whether it was deleted by China’s censors.

Last week, Chinese state television issued a statement in English attributed to Peng that retracted her accusation against Zhang.

Some of the biggest names in tennis, including Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, raised the alarm after they noted that Peng had not been seen in public since she made the allegations.

The White House is “deeply concerned by reports that Peng Shuai appears to be missing,” press secretary Jen Psaki said at a news briefing Friday. The United Nations has also called for proof of Peng's whereabouts and wellbeing as well as an investigation into her sexual assault allegations.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson last week denied knowing about the outcry.

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Steve Simon, the chair of the Women’s Tennis Association, or WTA, said last week that he had received an email purportedly from Peng saying she was at home resting, not missing. But Simon cast doubt on the authenticity of the email, saying he had "repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail."

“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” Simon said, adding that the world needs “independent and verifiable proof that she is safe.” 

In a separate statement after Chinese state media released the video purporting to show Peng in a Beijing restaurant, Simon said the WTA's relationship with China "is at a crossroads."

“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," he said. "This video alone is insufficient."

Peng is one of China's biggest tennis stars of recent years, having won doubles titles at Wimbledon and the French Open in 2013 and 2014.

Her situation highlights a growing issue for sports organizations that are trying to balance China's vast commercial opportunities with concerns about Beijing’s widely criticized record on human rights and censorship.

Simon told CNN last week that the WTA would consider pulling tournaments worth tens of millions of dollars out of China unless Peng is accounted for and her allegations are fully investigated.

“This is bigger than the business,” he said. “Women need to be respected and not censored.”