The UK government has joined the mounting chorus of concern over the apparent disappearance of tennis star Peng Shuai, urging the Chinese authorities to offer “verifiable evidence” of her whereabouts and safety.
Peng, a former doubles world No 1, has not been seen or heard from publicly since she accused a former high-ranking Chinese government official on 2 November of forcing her to have sex after playing tennis at his home.
The demand by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) came hours after Chinese state media claimed Peng has been staying in her own home “freely” and would make a public appearance “soon”.
The FCDO, however, is among those sceptical about such an explanation, releasing a statement that said: “The Chinese authorities should urgently provide verifiable evidence of her safety and whereabouts. Everyone should be allowed to speak out without fear of repercussions. All reports of sexual assault, anywhere in the world, should be investigated.”
The Foreign Office’s intervention follows criticism on Friday when shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy denounced the government for its “deafening silence” over Peng’s disappearance.
The British Olympic Association (BOA) also joined the mounting tide of criticism against China, calling for its authorities to provide “urgent clarification” that Peng was safe.
It follows similar calls from the UN and the White House for the Chinese government to share proof of Peng’s whereabouts.
Soon after the UN made its demands, photos purporting to show the tennis player were released by a Chinese state-affiliated journalist, but have not been independently verified.
Peng disappeared after stating on Chinese social media on 2 November that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli coerced her into sex and they later had an on-off consensual relationship.
Neither Zhang nor the Chinese government have commented on her allegation. Peng’s social media post was quickly removed by the authorities, who are now censoring mentions of tennis on social media website Weibo and scrambling signals of foreign news channels when they report on the case.
Yesterday Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of Global Times, which is published by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, wrote: “In the past few days, she stayed in her own home freely and she didn’t want to be disturbed. She will show up in public and participate in some activities soon.”
Hu said he had confirmed through his sources that the photos shared on Twitter by a journalist working for Chinese state media, purportedly showing Peng at home, depicted her “current state”.The Foreign Office, however, appears unconvinced, stating: “We are extremely concerned at the apparent disappearance of Peng Shuai, and are following the case closely.”
The BOA said in a statement: “We join the wider sporting community in expressing our concern for the welfare of Peng Shuai.“We call on all responsible bodies to provide the urgent clarification of her safety that we all require.””
It is understood that the BOA is attempting to put pressure on the International Olympic Committee, which has caused disquiet by its controversial decision not to comment on Peng’s matter, explaining it believed “quiet diplomacy” offered the best opportunity for a solution.
Some experts, though, believe the IOC could be pushed into taking a hard line over the hosts of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which starts in February, with the potential for a boycott.yesterday on Saturday that it was “very concerned” for Shuai and hoped contact with her and fellow athletes could be established soon.
“Together with the worldwide athlete community, the IOC Athletes’ Commission is very concerned about the situation of three-time Olympian Peng Shuai,” the commission, made up of athletes elected by their peers, said in a statement.