China’s foreign ministry has accused unnamed people of “malicious hyping” in the case of the tennis star Peng Shuai, in a hardline and unrepentant response to questions in the west over her wellbeing.
The whereabouts and wellbeing of Peng, a former doubles world number one, has become a matter of international concern over the past three weeks, after she alleged in a message on the Chinese social media site Weibo that the country’s former vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her. Peng ceased to be seen in public shortly after she made her allegation on 2 November.
Some countries are weighing up a potential boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which is due to take place in February, and assurances by Chinese authorities that Peng is safe and well have been met with scepticism, especially by the Women’s Tennis Association.
“This is not a diplomatic matter,” the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, told a regular press briefing on Tuesday. “I believe everyone will have seen she has recently attended some public activities and also held a video call with the IOC [International Olympic Committee] president, [Thomas] Bach. I hope certain people will cease malicious hyping, let alone politicisation.”
Mentions of the 35-year-old have been heavily censored in China since early this month. But outside the country, an online campaign under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai – joined by stars including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams – has taken off, particularly after the Chinese state media published an email purportedly written by Peng that said she was “fine”.
Peng reappeared over the weekend in Beijing and held a video call with the Bach on Sunday. The IOC reported that she was “safe and well”, but its apparent attempt to ease international concern drew it into the line of fire. The organisation was subsequently accused of staging a “publicity stunt” for Beijing.
“That’s not a safeguarding call by any means. Tennis should have been able to have that call, it should have been a safeguarding officer having that call – not a publicity stunt,” said Nikki Dryden, a human rights lawyer and former Olympic swimmer for Canada.
With talk of a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Games on the rise, pro-government actors in China are framing the issue as an ideological struggle with the west.
“The ideological conflicts between China and the west will escalate before the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022 as anti-Chinese forces will converge to make trouble for China,” the Global Times wrote in an editorial on Monday.
“China used to care about maintaining a harmonious atmosphere with the west and the way being regarded by the rest of the world, particularly by the west. This needs to be changed.”