Peng Shuai retracts sexual assault claims as fears over wellbeing persist

Claim contradicts Chinese tennis player’s social media post in which she accused senior party figure of coercing her into sex

The Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has denied that she had accused a former senior official of having sexually assaulted her, in what is believed to be the first foreign press interview since her November essay caused a media storm.

“I wanted to make this very clear: I have never claimed, or written about anyone having sexually assaulted me,” Peng said. “With regards to Weibo, it’s about my personal privacy ... There’s been a lot of misunderstanding … There [should be] no distorted interpretation.”

The claim apparently contradicted a 2 November social media post, in which Peng accused the former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of having coerced her into sex. The essay was taken down less than 30 minutes after it was published, and Peng became the centre of a global media storm after disappearing from public view for more than two weeks after the essay.

Peng’s interview with Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao, a Chinese-language publication under the state-controlled Singapore Press Holdings Limited, came as fresh footage of Peng emerged online on Sunday.

Qingqing Chen, a senior journalist at the state-owned Global Times, posted a seven-second video clip of Peng on her Twitter account.

In it, Peng is seen apparently in conversation with two other people, one of whom is the Chinese basketball player Yao Ming. Peng is shown giggling as she listens to Yao speaking. Peng is the only one of the three not wearing a face mask.

“A friend sent me this video showing Chinese tennis star player Peng Shuai talked [sic] with Yao Ming, one of the most beloved players in @NBA history, this morning at an event ‘FIS Cross-Country Skiing China City Tour’ in Shanghai,” Chen wrote.

A friend sent me this video showing Chinese tennis star player Peng Shuai talked with Yao Ming, one of the most beloved players in @NBA history, this morning at an event “FIS Cross-Country Skiing China City Tour’ in Shanghai.

— Qingqing_Chen (@qingqingparis) December 19, 2021

Peng’s November post caused concern over her wellbeing internationally. It led fellow tennis stars, including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, to demand to know her whereabouts, under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai on Twitter.

The incident also unleashed a global storm of criticism of China. As a result, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) announced its suspension of future tournaments in China early this month. Rights organisations seized on the opportunity to call for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

In Sunday’s interview, Peng also answered the Singaporean newspaper’s question about her email response to the WTA’s CEO, Steve Simon, last month. She confirmed that the Chinese version of the email to Simon was written by her, but said the one published by CGTN, the state-owned English-language broadcaster, was a translation because her level of English was not sufficient.

“But they more or less said the same thing,” She said, adding that her email response to Simon was “entirely on my own volition”, and that she has been living freely. “Why would there be people following me?” she rebutted, when asked whether the authorities had put her under surveillance.

“The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true,” that letter said. “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.”

Simon had said at the time that he “had a hard time believing” that Peng had actually written the email or believed what had been attributed to her.

On the same day as Chen’s video clip and the Singaporean newspaper interview emerged, Ding Li, who claims to be Peng’s friend, also posted a series of photos of the tennis player in Shanghai.

In one of the photos, Ding, Yao, Peng and two other Chinese athletes – the Olympic sailing champion Xu Lijia and the retired table tennis player Wang Liqin – are seen standing next to a banner for the “FIS Cross-Country Skiing China City Tour” with Shanghai’s Yangpu bridge in the background.

上海之约 —彭帅 pengshuai @WTA @iocmedia @atptour

— 丁力 (@li_ding1) December 19, 2021

The Shanghai stop of the cross-country ski tour took place on Saturday, according to the state-run CGTN news site.

As China gears up for the Winter Olympics in February, controversies over its human rights record continue to fester. Many observers outside the country insist Peng is not genuinely free, despite attempts by state media to create this impression.

Chinese diplomats condemned unnamed people of “malicious hyping” of the Peng saga.


Vincent Ni China affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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