Pressure mounts on Beijing Winter Olympics as Chinese tennis star disappears

A growing number of athletes and politicians have raised questions about Chinese tennis champion Peng Shuai, who hasn’t been seen since she accused a senior Communist Party leader of sexual assault, amid diplomatic pressure on Beijing’s Winter Olympics.

Peng’s situation also puts the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in an uncomfortable spot, as Beijing faces international attention on its upcoming Winter Games in February 2022. U.S. President Joe Biden is under pressure from the U.S. Congress to diplomatically boycott the event over human rights concerns.

Five British MPs who have previously been sanctioned by Beijing wrote to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday with the same plea. “It is likely that neither the President nor other U.S. government officials will travel to China … It is vital that we keep up the momentum and follow suit in the U.K.,” they wrote.

Tim Loughton, a veteran Conservative MP and one of the letter’s co-authors, told POLITICO it would be “unthinkable” to send athletes and diplomats to China in the wake of Peng’s apparent disappearance.

German MEP Engin Eroglu from the Renew Europe group also hit out at Beijing, all the while criticizing other European institutions for “radio silence” on the issue.

“In its self-proclaimed role as a moral lighthouse, the EU has to step up its game and take the lead in urging government officials to make the right choice and not attend the Games in Beijing next year,” said Eroglu.

The IOC said it had no further comment at this stage, but earlier this week told the I that it had “seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe.”

International outcry took a dramatic turn Wednesday when Chinese state media tweeted a screenshot showing an email purportedly sent by the 35-year-old Peng to Women’s Tennis Association CEO Steve Simon, saying she was not missing and “everything is fine.”

Simon shot back at the news story. “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. “I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communications, to no avail.”

Loughton, the U.K. MP, also ridiculed the email story. “The obviously fake email in her name from Chinese state media is an insult to our intelligence,” he said. “[Chinese President] Xi Jinping’s regime could not sink any lower. Our government must demand to know the whereabouts of this courageous woman.”

Peng, a former top-ranked doubles player and Grand Slam champion, described in a social media post earlier this month what she said were repeated sexual assaults by former Politburo standing committee member Zhang Gaoli, who was one of the highest-ranking members in the Communist Party before his retirement in 2018. In the post, deleted just half an hour after it was published, Peng said she had no evidence to prove her allegations.

A chorus of tennis stars demanded more information about Peng’s whereabouts.

“Honestly, it’s shocking that she’s missing, more so that it’s someone that I have seen on the tour in the previous years quite a few times,” said Novak Djokovic, the men’s top-ranked player. “It’s not much more to say than I hope that she will be found, that she’s OK. It’s just terrible. I can imagine just how her family feels that she’s missing.”

Japanese Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka added in a tweet, “Censorship is never ok at any cost. I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and ok.”

Ali Walker contributed reporting.

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