China on Tuesday said the controversy surrounding Peng Shuai was being “maliciously” hyped up, after the Chinese tennis star made sexual assault claims against one of the nation’s most powerful politicians.
Peng, a Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion, was not seen for more than two weeks after she made the sexual assault accusations against a former vice premier.
The 35-year-old reappeared in public for the first time at the weekend when she was seen attending a Beijing tennis tournament.
“I think some people should stop deliberately and maliciously hyping up, let alone politicise this issue,” said foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian in response to a question on whether the case affected China’s international image.
The comment was the most direct response from the Chinese government to Peng’s case.
Until Tuesday, Beijing had repeatedly brushed off questions about her whereabouts and welfare — calling them “not a diplomatic issue”.
Evidence of her claims have also been scrubbed from China’s highly censored internet.
Peng appeared in a 30-minute video call with the International Olympic Committee chief on Sunday.
But human rights groups and sporting authorities overseas have continued to voice concern about Peng’s welfare and whether authorities will act on her allegations.
“This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern,” the Women’s Tennis Association said.