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U.S. ‘deeply concerned’ about China’s missing tennis star

The U.S. and the United Nations called for proof of missing Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s “whereabouts and well-being” Friday and called for an investigation into her allegations of sexual assault. 

The White House was “deeply concerned by reports that Peng Shuai appears to be missing,” press secretary Jen Psaki told a news briefing. 

The three-time Olympian and former No. 1-ranked women’s doubles player has not been seen publicly since a post on her social media account made allegations of sexual assault against former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, who was a member of China’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and a lieutenant of party General Secretary Xi Jinping. The post was later deleted.

“Any report of sexual assault should be investigated, and we support a woman’s ability to speak out and seek accountability, whether here or around the world,” Psaki said. 

Those views were echoed by the United Nations.  

It was “important to have proof of her whereabouts and well-being,” Elizabeth Throssell, the spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, told a news briefing Friday.   

“It was a challenging issue, as it was difficult for victims of sexual assault to come forward to make their allegations,” she added. “Sexual assault was found in any and every society. It was important to ensure justice and accountability for victims.” 

Meanwhile, in a new effort to dispel concern about her disappearance, an employee of Chinese state TV on Friday posted photos of Peng on Twitter that cannot be seen by most internet users in China.

Shen Shiwei wrote the pictures showing Peng with a gray cat and holding a panda figurine in what appeared to be a private home with stuffed animals lined up behind her were on Peng’s account on the WeChat message service with the comment, “Happy Weekend.”

There was no indication when the photos were taken, and NBC News has not been able to verify their authenticity.

Shen works for CGTN, the English-language arm of China Central Television that is aimed at foreign audiences. 

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,” Hu Xijin wrote. “She will show up in public and participate in some activities soon.”

He later posted two video clips of Peng to his Twitter account that he claimed had been shot at local time Saturday. NBC News was unable to verify this.

The pictures were released after a number of tennis players including Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic spoke out about Peng’s disappearance, along with rights groups, retired players and several athletes lobbies — trying to turn their profiles into power.

Steve Simon, the chairman and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, has threatened to pull the WTA’s events out of China. That means almost a dozen next year, including the WTA final.

NBC News has reached out to the Chinese Tennis Association for comment. NBC News also attempted to reach Zhang, who retired in 2018 and is no longer in the public eye.

The controversy is politically awkward as the Chinese capital prepares to hold the Winter Olympics in February. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson on Friday denied knowing about the outcry over Peng’s disappearance.

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