New images of Peng Shuai were posted online on Saturday by a journalist working with a state TV channel, leading to further speculation about the missing Chinese tennis star.
The photos showed Peng with a grey cat and holding a panda figurine in what appeared to be a private home. Stuffed animals are lined up behind her in the photos. There was no indication of when the photos were taken.
Mr Zhang was a member of the nation’s highest ruling council, the Politburo Standing Committee, and a close ally to Chinese president Xi Jinping. Peng has not been seen in public after making the allegations over two weeks ago.
Journalist Shen Shiwei from CGTN –a channel under the control of the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party – reposted on his Twitter account the images she purportedly posted on her WeChat account.
“Peng Shuai’s WeChat moments just posted three latest photos and said ‘Happy weekend,’” Mr Shen wrote. “Her friend shared the three photos and the screenshot of Peng’s WeChat moments.”
But many experts and fans of the professional tennis player have expressed scepticism about the authenticity of the photos.
Hong Kong-based activist Nathan Law wrote: “Someone in CCP is going to be fired – there is a Winnie the Pooh in the third photo. And they tried to fool the world by these usual CCP tactics.”
He added: “We demand truth and safe return of #PengShuai. These little tricks do not work.”
Another user wrote: “I do not trust ‘China-affiliated media’ to truthfully reveal the whereabouts of Peng Shuai.”
Global Times’ editor-in-chief Hu Xijin claimed that the photos posted by Mr Shen are real. “I confirmed through my own sources today that these 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. She will show up in public and participate in some activities soon,” Mr Hu wrote.
On Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Peng’s matter was “not a diplomatic question and I’m not aware of the situation”.
Peng had alleged that she had been forced to have sex with Mr Zhang despite repeated refusals three years ago. The post was taken down soon after it was posted on Weibo, one of China’s largest social media sites.
Mr Zhao’s comments came on the heels of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) announcement that it was prepared to pull their tournaments out of China if they are not satisfied with the response to the sexual assault allegation.
“We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it. Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business. Women need to be respected and not censored,” WTA chief executive Steve Simon told CNN.
He also questioned the authenticity of an email sent to him by Peng, a screenshot of which was tweeted by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV. The email was reportedly said she was safe and that the assault allegation was untrue.
The WTA has been focusing on China for expansion and hosted nine tournaments in the country in the 2019 season.
Additional reporting by agencies