The White House administration said it is "deeply concerned" and wants "independent, verifiable proof" of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai's whereabouts and the United Nations Human Rights Office held the same stance later in the day as concerns for the player's safety continue to grow.
Peng, one of the country's most recognizable stars, has not been seen publicly since Nov. 2, when she accused a top government official of sexual assault. Calls to find her have been made by Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and the Women's Tennis Association (WTA).
White House addresses Peng
White House press secretary Jen Psaki addressed the disappearance of the 35-year-old, two-time Grand Slam champion on Friday. It came a day after Serena Williams joined the call to find her.
"We join in the calls for PRC (People's Republic of China) authorities to provide independent and verifiable proof of her whereabouts and that she is safe," Psaki told reporters at the White House.
Peng accused former top government official Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault on Nov. 2 using Weibo, a Chinese social media platform. The post was taken down and all discussion of it was censured, which is not uncommon on the platform. She has not been seen or heard from since, prompting concerns about her safety and whereabouts.
Psaki said she could not add any detail, but reiterated where the United States stands "in general" on the basic issues at stake.
"First, 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. "Second, we'll continue to stand up for the freedom of speech. And we know the PRC has zero tolerance for criticism and a record of silencing those that speak out and we continue to condemn those practices."
Earlier Friday, China's Foreign Ministry reiterated that it was "not aware of the situation," per the Associated Press.
United Nations calls for investigation
UN Human Rights spokesperson Liz Throssell said Friday from Geneva that the organization wants proof of Peng's whereabouts and for an investigation with "full transparency."
"What we would say is that it would be important to have proof of her whereabouts and wellbeing, and we would urge that there be an investigation with full transparency into her allegations of sexual assault," Throssell said, via CNN.
"According to available information, the former world doubles No. 1 hasn't been heard from publicly since she alleged on social media that she was sexually assaulted. We would stress that it is important to know where she is and know her state, know about her wellbeing."
WTA committed to helping Peng
WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon called for an investigation in a statement last weekend.
CGTN, the international arm of China's state-owned media organization, published a screenshot of the text of an email it said was written by Peng and sent to Simon. Simon released a statement within the hour saying it only "raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts" and he has a "hard time believing" the tennis player wrote the email.
The organization is committed to finding Peng and ensuring her allegations are properly investigated. Simon is willing to lose hundreds of millions in business, he said via CNN.
"We're definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it," Simon said in an interview Thursday with CNN. "Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business."
"Women need to be respected and not censored," said Simon.
Peng's disappearance and the Beijing Olympics
The concern and impact goes beyond tennis. China is preparing to host the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in February and activists have already been protesting the country's human rights record in the lead-up to the games. They called for a boycott during a demonstration at the torch-lighting ceremony in October.
The IOC only delivered a one-sentence statement on Peng's disappearance on Thursday: “We have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe.”
President Joe Biden said Thursday the United States is considering a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics over the human rights abuses in the country. Athletes would still compete, but government officials and dignitaries would not attend.