Olympic Committee Accused of Supporting China 'Propaganda' After Video Call With Peng Shuai

A video call Sunday between Olympic officials and Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who disappeared for nearly three weeks after accusing a senior Chinese official of sexual assault, raised more questions than answers, the Associated Press reported.

The International Olympic Committee said Peng spoke to officials, including IOC President Thomas Bach, in a 30-minute video call from Beijing. According to the organization's statement, she reassured them that she was well and thanked them for their concern but asked for her privacy.

"The statements make the IOC complicit in the Chinese authority's malicious propaganda and lack of care for basic human rights and justice," Global Athlete, a lobby group for athletes, said in a statement.

The IOC posted a photo showing Bach facing Peng on screen but did not release video of the call. China Open posted photos and videos of her appearance at a youth tennis tournament in Beijing the same morning.

Yaqiu Wang, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch, tweeted that the IOC is now "actively playing a role in the Chinese government's enforced disappearance, coercion and propaganda machinery."

The tennis star accused the former member of the Communist Party's ruling Standing Committee, Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault in a social media post that was removed quickly from Weibo, one of China's most popular social media platforms.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Peng Shuai, Tennis, China
Out of public view for almost three weeks, Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai appeared on November 21 in a live video call with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. Shuai waves after losing to Canada Eugenie Bouchard in their first round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia on January 15, 2019. Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo

In the social media post Shuai wrote in part: "I know that to you, vice minister Zhang Gaoli, a person of high status and power, you've said you're not afraid. With your intelligence, you certainly will deny it or you can even use it against me, you can dismiss it without a care. Even if I'm destroying myself, like throwing an egg against a rock, or a moth flying into a flame, I will still speak out the truth about us."

Concerns about the censoring of her post and her subsequent disappearance from public view grew into a furor, drawing comments from tennis greats like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, and Martina Navratilova.

All the while, news of her allegations was blacked out at home. CNN reported that its signal in China had been blocked during reporting on Peng.

A search for her name Monday on Weibo, one of China's leading social media platforms, produced only a few posts, and none that refer to the sexual assault allegation or the questions about her whereabouts.

Still missing is Zhang. He left public life about three years ago after being one of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee—the apex of political power in China.

The IOC's short statement, which offered few details and no follow-up on her allegations, seems unlikely to close the door on Peng's case—and it's leading to increasing criticism of the sports body, which was already facing calls for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which open on February 4.

Even after the statement was published Sunday, the WTA repeated what chairman and CEO Steve Simon has been saying for more than a week, calling for a full, fair and transparent investigation "without censorship."

The IOC was already under pressure because of allegations that China has committed human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims, Tibetans and other minorities. China has denied the accusations. "We are firmly opposed to any words and deeds that politicize sports in violation of the Olympic spirit," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Monday when asked about a possible boycott.

The Olympic body has responded to criticism by saying its policy is "quiet diplomacy" and it may argue that its access to Peng shows that works.

But critics said the move makes the body an active partner in delivering Beijing's message—while not providing Peng with an open forum to discuss her allegations.

An email seeking comment on criticism of the IOC's handling of its contact with Peng was sent to the Olympic body.

This is the second time this year that the IOC has been in the spotlight for pushing ahead with an Olympics: Many wanted the body to call off the Summer Games in Tokyo because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Critics note that IOC has a strong interest in holding the events because it generates 91 percent of its income from sponsors and selling broadcast rights at the Games.

Peng is just one of a number of Chinese businesspeople, activists and ordinary people who have disappeared in recent years after criticizing party figures or in crackdowns on corruption or pro-democracy and labor rights campaigns.

While the ruling Communist Party is quick to blot out any criticism, that this time it came from an athlete made it especially sensitive. State media celebrate athletes' victories as proof the party is making China strong—and the party is vigilant about making sure they cannot use their prominence and public appeal to erode its image.

The WTA is the first sports body to defiantly stand up to China's financial clout—in what many see as a sharp contrast to the IOC, which said it is powerless to intervene in China's internal policies.

"The IOC showed a complete disregard for allegations of sexual violence and abuse against athletes," the statement said. "By taking a nonchalant approach to Peng Shuai's disappearance and by refusing to mention her serious allegations of sexual assault, IOC President Thomas Bach and the IOC Athletes' Commission demonstrate an abhorrent indifference to sexual violence and the well-being of female athletes."

Peng Shuai, Tennis, China, Beijing
The International Olympic Committee said Peng Shuai spoke to officials, including IOC President Thomas Bach, in a 30-minute video call from Beijing. Shuai in action against Daria Kasatkina of Russia during women's singles first round match 2019 China Open-Day 1 on September 28, 2019 in Beijing, China. Fred Lee/Getty Images