Missing Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai has been staying in her own home “freely” and will make a public appearance soon, a prominent state-media journalist has said.
Peng, a former Wimbledon doubles champion, disappeared after writing a social media post on 2 November accusing a former top government official of forcing her to have sex after playing tennis at his home.
Her original post on Weibo has been taken down and neither former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli nor the Chinese government have commented on her allegation.
Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin – from the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party – wrote on Twitter: “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.”
The mystery surrounding the tennis champion took a fresh twist on Friday after photos emerged purporting to show her relaxing at home, surrounded by soft toys and with a grey cat.
Experts have expressed scepticism and questioned the authenticity of the images.
An email said to be from Peng was released on Wednesday by CGTN, but doubts have also been raised over its authenticity.
It says the sexual assault claim “is not true” and adds: “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine”.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Joe Biden’s administration is “deeply concerned” about the situation.
She said: “We join in the calls for People’s Republic of China authorities to provide independent and verifiable proof of her whereabouts and that she is safe. I can’t speak… to the details of the case or any more details of where she might be, obviously, but I want to be clear where the United States stands, generally speaking.
“First: any report of sexual assault should be investigated and we support a woman’s ability to speak out and take accountability, whether here or around the world.
“Second: we’ll continue to stand up for the freedom of speech and we know the PRC has zero tolerance for criticism and a record of silencing those that speak out and we continue to condemn those practices.”
Amid growing concern about her whereabouts, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has threatened to pull tournaments out of China and the men’s ATP has demanded clarity from the Chinese authorities.
It comes after Andy Murray and the Lawn Tennis Association joined an online campaign to help find Peng.
Other tennis stars including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic are among those concerned over her whereabouts.
China’s foreign ministry claimed on Friday that it was unaware of the controversy.
Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters it was “not a diplomatic question and I’m not aware of the situation”.
Steve Simon, the head of the WTA, said it “only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts”.
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” he said in a statement.
“Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government.
“The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe. I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail.”
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