Experts have questioned the authenticity of newly released photos that appear to show missing tennis star Peng Shuai smiling as she poses for the camera behind a sea of children’s toys.
Three photographs posted online by a reporter working with CGTN, the international wing of China’s state broadcaster, purportedly show the 35-year-old tennis ace posing with a grey cat while surrounded by a bed of soft toys.
Shen Shiwei, the man who shared the pictures to Twitter on Friday, said the images had been posted on Shuai’s WeChat messenger, but experts have continued to express doubts over the veracity of the pictures.
Fears continue to mount for Shuai, once ranked as the top female double’s player in the world, who has not been seen since accusing the country’s former vice premier of rape on November 2.
Friday marked the second time in as many days that the Chinese-state broadcaster attempted to alleviate concern over the missing tennis star, after sharing an email claiming to have been written Shuai in which she said she was ‘resting at home’.
Andy Murray and Serena Williams have become the latest high-profile names to join the campaign to find missing tennis star Peng Shuai in the wake of her sexual assault allegations.
Fears continue to mount for Peng Shuai, once ranked as the top female double’s player in the world, who has not been seen since accusing the country’s former vice premier of rape on November 2.
Three photographs posted online by a reporter working with CGTN, the international wing of China’s state broadcaster, purportedly show the 35-year-old tennis ace posing with a grey cat while surrounded by a bed of soft toys
Shen Shiwei, the man who shared the pictures to Twitter on Friday, said the images had ben posted on Shuai’s WeChat messenger, but experts have continued to express doubts over the veracity of the pictures
As news broke of the pictures being shared online, internet sleuths also raised questions over the fact that a framed picture of Winnie the Pooh – a character banned in China – appeared in the background.
The former doubles world No 1 has not been seen or heard from publicly since she said on Chinese social media in early November that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli coerced her into sex three years ago, and that they had had an on-off relationship.
The post was quickly deleted from her verified account on Weibo, a leading Chinese social media platform, but screenshots of the explosive accusation quickly spread despite the topic being blocked from discussion on China’s heavily censored internet.
Peng Shuai, 35, a Chinese tennis star, has not been seen since November 2 when she posted on social media accusing a senior Communist official of sexual abuse
Serena Williams also took to her own social media and received well over 24,000 retweets
Naomi Osaka used the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai as she expressed her ‘shock’ on Twitter
Andy Murray has now joined the search for the former world No 1 doubles player Peng
23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, 40, publicly called on the authorities to launch an investigation into Shuai’s disappearance and urged those involved to ‘not stay silent’.
Andy Murray then weighed in on the uncomfortable situation himself, noting: ‘Female tennis player Peng Shuai whereabouts currently unknown after making Sexual abuse allegations against Chinese government official.
‘This speech gives us a reminder and some hope that things can change in the future #WhereIsPengShuai’
Meanwhile, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) said it was prepared to pull its tournaments out of China if they were not satisfied with the response to her sexual assault allegation.
It comes after Chinese state media published an English-language email they claimed was written by Peng which said: ‘I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.’
Steve Simon, the head of the Women’s Tennis Association, said he has a ‘hard time believing’ that Peng wrote the email herself and it ‘only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.’
Simon said that nobody from the WTA has been in direct contact with Peng since she accused 75-year-old Communist party official Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex on Chinese social media two weeks ago.
Fears grew for her safety Wednesday as Chinese state media published what they claimed was an email written by her saying ‘I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine’
Social media users were quick to point out oddities with the ’email’, including that it is addressed to ‘everyone’ despite allegedly being a private message and that a typing cursor appears to be flashing in the middle of the message – suggesting it is open in a word processor
Peng alleged that senior politician Zhang Gaoli, 40 years her senior, sexually assaulted her in a bedroom at his house, while his wife was present
On Wednesday, Simon cast doubt on an email, which was also released by a Chinese state media outlet on Twitter, purporting to be from Peng and denying the allegations of sexual assault.
‘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.
By Friday, the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai had racked up over 32 million mentions on Facebook’s Instagram, which is also blocked in China, as well as Twitter, according to hashtag analysis website BrandMentions.
Earlier, China’s Foreign Ministry has said it was not aware of the controversy surrounding Peng, who disappeared after accusing a former top official of sexually abusing her.
Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters that the matter was ‘not a diplomatic question and I’m not aware of the situation’.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian (pictured, on November 16) told reporters that the controversy surrounding the disappearance of tennis professional Peng Shuai was ‘not a diplomatic question and I’m not aware of the situation’
The ministry has consistently disavowed knowledge of the issue since it broke as a major global story earlier this week.
Despite this, international pressure has been growing to uncover the truth about Peng’s whereabouts, with 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, 40, urging an investigation to be launched.
Peng, 35, is a former top ranked player in women’s doubles who won titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.
She also participated in three Olympics, making her disappearance all the more prominent with Beijing set to host the Winter Games starting on February 4.
Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office in Geneva, said Friday it was calling for ‘an investigation with full transparency into her allegation of sexual assault.’
‘And I think we would say that that should be the case into all allegations of sexual assault. It is really important to ensure accountability, to ensure justice for the victims,’ she said.