US President Joe Biden’s administration wants China to “provide independent, verifiable proof” of the whereabouts of tennis player Peng Shuai, who went missing after making sexual assault allegations against a top Communist Party official.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki made the comments on Saturday AEDT, saying the US government was “deeply concerned” for Peng’s safety.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks with reporters in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Saturday AEDT.Credit:AP

The former doubles world number one has not been seen or heard from publicly since she said on Chinese social media on November 2 that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli coerced her into sex and they later had an on-off consensual relationship.

China’s Foreign Ministry stuck to its line on Friday that it wasn’t aware of the controversy surrounding Peng.

Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters the matter was “not a diplomatic question and I’m not aware of the situation.”

The ministry has consistently disavowed knowledge of the issue since the 35-year-old made her accusation. Her social media accounts were blocked almost immediately and all discussion of the allegations wiped from the internet in China.

On Wednesday, Women’s Tennis Association Chief Executive Steve Simon said he had received an email purporting to be from Peng and denying the allegations of sexual assault, which he cast doubt over. A Chinese state media outlet also released the letter on Twitter.

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai is missing.Credit:Eddie Jim

On Friday, Simon said the WTA was “at a crossroads” with China.

“We continue to call for independent and verifiable proof that Peng Shuai is safe and that her sexual assault allegation will be investigated fully, fairly and without censorship. If not, the WTA is prepared to do what is right,” he said, meaning it would consider pulling tournaments worth tens of millions of dollars out of China.

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman tweeted: “We are deeply concerned by reports that tennis player Peng Shuai appears to be missing, and we join the calls for the PRC to provide independent, verifiable proof of her whereabouts. Women everywhere deserve to have reports of sexual assault taken seriously and investigated.”

Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the UN human rights office in Geneva, said it was calling for “an investigation with full transparency into her allegation of sexual assault.”

“And I think we would say that that should be the case into all allegations of sexual assault. It is really important to ensure accountability, to ensure justice for the victims,” she said.

On Saturday morning Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley weighed in: “Everyone’s aware of the Peng Shuai situation. The primary thing for us is to make sure that she’s safe. So we’ve utilised the channels that we have working behind the scenes, to find out, to get more clarity on her safety, work closely with the tours – particularly the woman’s tour.

“And our position is very clear. We want to know that she’s safe. And then secondly, we want her to know as a community, not only a global tennis community, but as a community here in Australia. We will do everything we can to support her well-being.”

With concerns growing into a global cause, senior International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound said the IOC could be pushed into confronting the 2022 Beijing Olympic hosts over human rights records.

Although the outrage is unlikely to stop the Beijing Winter Games going ahead in February, Pound would not completely rule it out.

“If that’s not resolved in a sensible way very soon it may spin out of control,” Pound, the IOC’s longest serving member, told Reuters. “It may [force IOC into taking a harder line].

“Whether that escalates to a cessation of the Olympic Games I doubt it. But you never know.”

Neither Zhang or the Chinese government have commented on Peng’s allegation.

The governing body of women’s tennis (WTA) has called for an investigation and has threatened to pull tournaments worth tens of millions of dollars out of China.

Even though Peng is a three-time Olympian, the IOC has given no indication it is willing to take a similar stand and risk billions of dollars in television rights and sponsorships.

“I don’t know whether we are there yet but I’m sure they [IOC executive committee] are following this to see where it is going,” said Pound, a Canadian lawyer and former-Olympian.

“Action against one of its own citizens for airing a complaint about one of their higher ups – that’s harder for them [China] to handle than the usual ‘this is a domestic matter now get lost’.”

Thus far the IOC has declined to comment on Peng’s matter, saying it believed “quiet diplomacy” offered the best opportunity for a solution.

Pound conceded that China does not respond well to threats and negotiating with sport and government officials requires nuance.

“That would be a little harder line than the IOC would normally be taking,” said Pound, when asked if the IOC might demand a meeting with Peng.

“Where we have generated some change of attitude in the past we’ve said, “listen this is all out there in the public how do we respond. We can’t ignore it.

“That in the past has produced some movement.

“My guess is it will be that kind of line rather than jabbing them in the chest and saying ‘do this or the world will end’.

“If you’re China you can say, ‘ok it will be disappointing [losing the Olympics] but it will be more disappointing for the rest of the world than it will be for us’.”

Reuters, AP, with Rachel Eddie

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