China have been accused of politicising Eileen Gu's gold medal triumph at the Winter Olympics after Peng Shuai was spotted watching the Chinese star in action in Beijing on Tuesday.
Peng sat with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and watched American-born freeskier Gu win gold at the women's Big Air event.
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Peng's appearance came one day after she delivered a controlled interview in Beijing that touched on sexual assault allegations she made against a former high-ranking member of China’s ruling Communist Party.
The tennis player's answers - delivered in front of a Chinese Olympic official - left unanswered questions about her wellbeing and what exactly happened.
Peng, a local star who has encouraged Chinese girls and women to take up tennis, watched as 18-year-old Gu formally ascended to a similar position with her first Olympic gold medal.
“I am really happy to hear that she was here today,” Gu said afterwards.
“It is a big honour when athletes from other sports come and pay attention to smaller sports like free skiing.
“I am really grateful that she is happy and healthy and out here doing her thing again.”
However many believe Peng's appearance at the big air event was a Chinese ploy to try and convince the world that she's not under coercion.
Gu is one of the most recognisable athletes in Beijing, with millions tuning in around the world to watch her in action after her decision to represent China instead of USA.
"The Chinese once again used the occasion as a political football," wrote British journalist James Gray.
"Peng was escorted away before the medal ceremony and left with someone wearing the uniform of a Games volunteer in a waiting private car. She will not be seen again at the Games – or until the Chinese Communist Party decide she can be seen again.
"We still have no real idea how safe she is, whether there will be any investigation into the allegations against Zhang or whether the CCP will admit they have limited her freedoms.
"Sadly, we might suspect we know the answers to all three."
Oliver Brown of The Telegraph said Peng has been "shamelessly paraded in Beijing as a prop”.
“You might reasonably imagine this is a subject on which the highly-educated Gu should hold strong views ... Except Gu’s alliance with China prevents her from offering the mildest criticism,” Brown wrote.
“Peng is not just ‘doing her thing’. For 48 hours, she has been used as a human crutch for (IOC president Thomas) Bach and the Chinese autocracy he is enabling.
“For Gu to imagine that in this climate, she can be a supranational butterfly, balancing vastly different cultural expectations and attitudes to free speech, is at best naive, at worst downright cynical.”
Annnd NBC just showed IOC President Thomas Bach with Peng Shuai right behind Eileen Gu when celebrating her gold medal run in the freestyle skiing final.
China did this on purpose, just like with the Uyghur in the Opening Ceremony.
China is evil.
— Curtis Houck (@CurtisHouck) February 8, 2022
It was frankly so creepy that they staged Peng Shuai and the IOC dude in the background at the bottom of the course behind Eileen Gu. My god…at least try to be subtle with the propaganda. https://t.co/lOlwhYE1Aa
— 🐯Budini🐯 (@Budini) February 8, 2022
No wonder state TV was giving billions of close-ups to #PengShuai at the stand!
— Sherry Fei Ju (@sherryjean) February 8, 2022
Propaganda at its finest
— Denise Wu (@denisewu) February 8, 2022
Concerns remain for Peng Shuai's wellbeing
After her gold medal triumph, Gu sidestepped a question about whether she shared concerns from the international community about Peng's wellbeing.
Peng’s interview with French sports newspaper L’Equipe and an announcement that Bach met Peng for dinner this weekend seemed aimed at allaying sustained international concerns about the three-time Olympian and former doubles World No.1.
Fears for Peng’s safety have threatened to overshadow the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Peng told L’Equipe that the concerns were the result of “an enormous misunderstanding", but the format of the interview appeared to limit follow-ups about the allegations and their aftermath.
L’Equipe asked Peng about sexual assault allegations that sparked the controversy in November. The allegations were quickly scrubbed from her verified account on leading Chinese social media platform Weibo.
She subsequently dropped out of public view for around three weeks, leading to “where is Peng Shuai?” questions online and from players and fans outside of China.
In her lengthy post, Peng wrote that Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier and member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, had forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals.
Her post also said they had sex once seven years ago, and that she developed romantic feelings for him after that. Zhang has not commented on the accusation.
“Originally, I buried all this in my heart,” she wrote. “Why would you even come find me again, take me to your house and force me and you to have sexual relations?”
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