Chinese state media have posted a number of photos and videos of Peng Shuai claiming to show the missing tennis star is safe and well.
Concern for the welfare of the 35-year-old, who has not been heard from directly for more than a fortnight, this week reached the United Nations and even the White House.
The former World No.1 in doubles has seemingly disappeared after making allegations of sexual assault against a former vice-premier in China on the social media site Weibo.
On Saturday, an employee of Chinese state TV posted photos and videos online in a new effort to dispel concern about her disappearance.
The former Wimbledon doubles champion can be seen smiling in the apparently new photos and videos, however WTA chairman Steve Simon isn't convinced.
Simon has threatened to pull the WTA out of the lucrative Chinese part of its tour next season unless it is proved that Peng is safe, and he reiterated that its relationship with China is "at a crossroads".
"I am glad to see the videos released by China state-run media that appear to show Peng Shuai at a restaurant in Beijing," said Simon in a WTA statement.
"While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference. This video alone is insufficient.
"As I have stated from the beginning, I remain concerned about Peng Shuai's health and safety and that the allegation of sexual assault is being censored and swept under the rug.
"I have been clear about what needs to happen and our relationship with China is at a crossroads."
I acquired two video clips, which show Peng Shuai was having dinner with her coach and friends in a restaurant. The video content clearly shows they are shot on Saturday Beijing time. pic.twitter.com/HxuwB5TfBk
— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) November 20, 2021
Detail in Peng Shuai photo sparks frenzy online
The Twitter account @shen_shiwei, labelled "Chinese state-affiliated media" by the social network, posted four undated images of Peng late Friday.
Shen Shiwei said the pictures were shared on Peng's WeChat Moments, a function often restricted to friends, to wish her followers a "good weekend".
One photo shows the smiling player with a cat in her arms, with stuffed animals, a trophy, a Chinese flag and certificates visible in the background.
Another image shows a selfie of Peng with a toy from the children's animation Kung Fu Panda, with an image of Winnie the Pooh in the background.
The Winnie the Pooh detail has sparked a frenzy online because the children's character is often censored online in China as critics say Chinese leader Xi Jinping resembles the cartoon.
Peng Shuai just shared some pictures on wechat. With winnie the pooh pic.twitter.com/V4cDpTRUgS
— Giulia Pompili (@giuliapompili) November 19, 2021
— Dr. Leta Hong Fincher 洪理达 (@LetaHong) November 19, 2021
Peng Shuai彭帥 used this photo to imply that she is being controlled by the Kung Fu Panda功夫貓熊 (according to one of the CCP’s mouthpiece Global Net環球網 on May 25, 2020, Kung Fu Panda=CCP-China).
Winnie the Pooh (known all over the world = Xi Jinping) is the one behind it. pic.twitter.com/C2scO6Wuqh
— 幸運草 Lucky clover (@lucky_clover_tw) November 20, 2021
Looks like Peng Shuai is alive and well. Images shared on her Wechat Moments. There is even a picture of Winnie the Pooh in a picture frame. Is that a hidden message? What does it mean?🤣 pic.twitter.com/KffdRTtmCX
— Spilled Milk Alliance (@Mister_Ah_Q) November 19, 2021
These photos are of particular concern, especially the third, as head of CCP Xi is often shown as a bear/Winnie the Pooh controlling figure abroad, and Peng in the third photo is shown alongside Winnie. The panda is also a symbol for a national treasure and national security. pic.twitter.com/r6uxy84l3K
— Pierre (@szaczn) November 19, 2021
Meanwhile, the editor of a newspaper published by the ruling Communist Party said Peng would “show up in public” soon.
The editor of Global Times, an English-language newspaper published by the Communist Party, said on Twitter he had confirmed from unidentified sources that the photos “are indeed Peng Shuai’s current state.”
“In the past few days, she stayed in her own home freely and she didn’t want to be disturbed,” wrote the editor, Hu Xijin.
“She will show up in public and participate in some activities soon.”
Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal speak out
Earlier this month, Peng alleged that Communist Party grandee Zhang Gaoli, now in his 70s, had forced her into sex during a long-term on-off relationship.
Wimbledon organisers said in a statement on Saturday: "We are united with the rest of tennis in the need to understand that Peng Shuai is safe.
"We have been working in support of the WTA's efforts to establish her safety through our relationships behind the scenes."
Swiss tennis great Roger Federer also joined the chorus of athletes expressing concern for Peng.
"She was the No.1 (doubles player) in the world, but regardless of that I hope she is well," Federer told Sky Sports Italy.
"The whole tennis family is with her. I am connected to all players. I hope good news will come soon from her."
Rafa Nadal said: "Even if I don't have all the information, the most important thing is to know if she is OK.
"All of us from the tennis family are hoping to see her back with us soon."
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