Chinese tennis star, Peng Shuai has denied her own claims of sexual assault and reports that she disappeared from public view in an interview with foreign media, raising further concerns about her safety.
Peng, 36, claimed in a social media post last year that she had been forced into sex by Zhang Gaoli, China’s former vice-premier, sparking an internet crackdown by Beijing censors that also saw her vanish from public view for weeks.
In her first interview outside Chinese state media on Sunday, Peng told French magazine L’Equipe that she ‘never said’ she had been sexually assaulted and that she ‘never disappeared’.
Accompanied during the interview by a Chinese Olympic committee official who translated all her comments from Chinese, Peng insisted that her social media post was the subject of an ‘enormous misunderstanding’ by the public.
‘Sexual assault? I never said that anyone made me submit to a sexual assault,’ she told the magazine.
‘This post resulted in an enormous misunderstanding from the outside world. My wish is that the meaning of this post no longer be skewed.’
L’Equipe was able to meet with Peng Shuai at the Chinese Olympic Committee hotel in Beijing on Sunday, two days after the Winter Olympics officially got underway.
As a condition of the interview, the magazine said that all questions had to be submitted to Chinese officials in advance, Mail Online reports.
They were told that Peng, who can speak English, would answer only in Chinese and that an official would be present throughout the interview to translate.
However, L’Equipe was able to supply its own translator to double-check the accuracy of the official’s remarks.
The interview was scheduled to last half an hour but ran to almost an hour, and the magazine said its reporters were allowed to ask some questions that were not agreed in advance.
According to the report, Peng gave nearly identical answers to those printed in Chinese state media despite refuting her own social media post.
L’Equipe agreed to publish her answers, verbatim, in a question-and-answer format.
She said: ‘First of all, I would like to thank all the ATP and WTA players, all the athletes and all the personalities in large numbers who cared about me.
‘But I didn’t think there would be such concern and I would like to know: why such concern?’
‘I never said anyone sexually assaulted me in any way.
‘I never disappeared, everyone could see me. It’s just that a lot of people, like my friends, including from the IOC, messaged me, and it was quite impossible to reply to so many messages.
‘But with my close friends, I always remained in close contact. I discussed with them, answered their emails, I also discussed with the WTA.
‘But, at the end of the year, their website’s communication computer was changed and many players had difficulty logging in at that time.
‘But we always kept in touch with colleagues. That’s why I don’t know why the information that I had disappeared, spread.
‘This post has given rise to a huge misunderstanding from the outside world. I hope that we no longer distort the meaning of this post. And I also hope that we don’t add more hype on this.’
Peng claims she was partially unaware of the international storm that followed the sudden deleting of her social media post.
In the subsequent weeks, Steve Simon, the president of the WTA, which governs women’s tennis, announced a suspension of their tournaments in China.
Peng said: ‘I don’t think I was aware of it all (global interest) because I don’t watch the news from foreign media much,’ she added.
‘I can’t read in English but I heard about it. I never thought there’d be such worry, though, and I’d like to know why was that the case?’
Peng added: ‘I didn’t choose anything. Like everyone, like you, I saw the statement on the official WTA website.
‘It was very unusual for me, why would I need psychological assistance or that sort of thing? I didn’t know how I should figure it out. But if the WTA psychologists couldn’t reach me and thought that I had disappeared, I think that’s a bit exaggerated.
‘So after reading this statement, I responded to WTA president Steve Simon myself.
‘Several copies were sent, and these emails I wrote myself. This is my personal statement. The same evening, I also sent it by WeChat to my colleagues in the players’ department in order to personally confirm that I was the author of the messages sent from my work email.’
Peng, already a household name in China, became the first Chinese player to be ranked No 1 in doubles by the Women’s Tennis Association. She shot to global prominence with her now-notorious post on November 2.
Writing on Chinese social media site Weibo, Peng revealed that she and Zhang – who is married – had been involved in an on-off affair dating back to 2011 when the pair met in the port city of Tianjin.
The post details how Peng slept with Zhang once that year, and possibly a second time before he was promoted to the upper echelons of China’s Communist Party and cut all ties with her.
But he allegedly rekindled the affair in 2018 after his retirement from politics, by inviting Peng for dinner with his wife after which he pressured her into sex.
Peng recalls ‘crying’ and refusing Zhang’s advances, before eventually relenting. That kicked off a three-year affair, Peng alleged, which she described as ‘unpleasant’.
In the post, she admitted to having ‘no evidence’ that the affair ever took place because Zhang insisted on keeping it a total secret.