While Peng’s public reappearance 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, and herself saying anything.
None of the videos made any 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.
“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.
To date, the Chinese government has repeatedly refused to comment on Peng’s case. Speaking at a news conference Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Peng’s accusation is not a diplomatic issue and declined to comment further. CNN has reached out to China’s State Council Information Office, which handles press inquires for the central government, for comment.
“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.
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.”