The UN has called on Chinese authorities to prove the whereabouts of Peng Shuai, as photos purporting to show the tennis player were released by a state-affiliated journalist claiming the images were from Peng's own social media account.
"It would be important to have proof of her whereabouts and wellbeing and we would urge that there be an investigation with full transparency into her allegations of sexual assault," Liz Throssell, a spokesperson for UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet, said in Geneva on Friday.
Peng, a former doubles world number one, has not been seen in public since she accused the former high-ranking official Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault on November 2nd.
Shortly after the UN call, a Chinese state-affiliated journalist, Shen Shiwei, revealed a set of photos which he said were posted on Peng’s WeChat social media account on Friday.
“Her friend shared the three photos and the screenshot of Peng’s WeChat moments,” the journalist wrote on Twitter.
The release of the images follows mounting concern for Peng's wellbeing. On Friday, the Women's Tennis Association said it was prepared to pull its tournaments out of China if there was not an adequate response to her sexual assault allegation against the former senior Chinese politician.
In a lengthy November 2nd post on Weibo, which was deleted half an hour later, Peng alleged that Zhang had forced her into sex after inviting her to his house to play tennis with him and his wife three years ago. She also said she and Zhang had previously had an on-off consensual relationship.
Peng also said in the post that she could provide no evidence to back her allegations, but was determined to speak out.
Neither Zhang nor the Chinese government have commented on Peng’s allegation and discussion of the topic has been blocked on China’s heavily censored internet.
Concern among the global tennis community and beyond has grown over Peng’s safety and whereabouts since her allegation, with the WTA calling for an investigation and the world’s top players tweeting #WhereIsPengShuai.
On Thursday the WTA Tour chairman and chief executive, Steve Simon, went further, telling US media the WTA, which has 10 events scheduled in China for 2022 worth tens of millions of dollars, was willing to pull them.
“We are at a crossroads with our relationship with China and operating our business over there,” Simon told CNN in an interview.
“We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business.”
Simon said the WTA must demand justice and could not compromise.
“Women need to be respected and not censored,” he said.
His comments were welcomed by current and former tennis players, including former champion Billie Jean King.
Simon has said the WTA had not been able to speak to Peng, and he was very concerned for her. The threat to pull out of China followed the release of what Chinese state media claimed was an email from Peng to Simon saying everything was fine. Simon said the claim – which was accompanied by a screenshot of text – only made him more worried, and he doubted it came from Peng.
China has been the focus of aggressive WTA expansion over the last decade and hosted nine tournaments in the 2019 season – the last before the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic – with a total $30.4m of prize money on offer.
But it is also under increasing pressure over a number of human rights issues, and there are growing calls for a boycott of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympic Games.
The WTA’s stance over Peng, should it follow through, goes considerably further than that of many sporting organisations, which have struggled to balance calls from fans and players to stand up against human rights abuses with their reliance on the Chinese market.
Women's tennis greats Serena Williams and King on Thursday added their voices to the growing chorus of tennis players and other sporting figures calling for an independent investigation.
“This must be investigated and we must not stay silent,” Williams wrote on social media. “Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time.”
Three-times Grand Slam winner Andy Murray added his voice to the
#WhereIsPengShuai campaign on Twitter on Friday.
The Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), a new body representing players set up by the men's world number one, Novak Djokovic, and Canadian player Vasek Pospisil, said players must be prepared to take action if Peng's safety cannot be confirmed.
“The PTPA is advocating for independent evidence confirming the safety and location of WTA player, Peng Shuai,” the body said in a statement. “We must unite and be willing to take action unless corroborated evidence is provided to the world about Peng’s wellbeing.”