Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has denied making sexual assault allegations against a retired Communist Party leader, following more than a month of growing concern about her safety and whereabouts that led to the Women’s Tennis Association pulling out of China.
“I have never spoken or written about anyone sexually assaulting me,” Peng told Singapore-based Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao on Sunday, in her first comments to international media since the explosive allegations came to light.
When asked if she has been able to move freely or was concerned about her safety, Peng said she has “always been free” and that she has been living at her home in Beijing.
The interview took place on the sidelines of the International Ski Federation’s cross-country skiing competition in Shanghai on Sunday, where Peng was also photographed with Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming, and two former Olympians: sailor Xu Lijia and table tennis player Wang Liqin.
However, skepticism remains about how freely Peng has been allowed to communicate, as well as calls for an investigation into the allegations.
Peng said there was a misunderstanding about the since-deleted social media post on her verified account on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, which detailed the allegations on November 2.
“First of all, it’s my personal privacy. There possibly has been a lot of misunderstanding. Therefore, there should not be such distorted interpretation here,” she said.
According to screenshots of that post, the two-time Grand Slam doubles champion accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of pressuring her into having sex at his home three years ago.
The immediate response from Chinese authorities was to censor any mention of the accusation online and block Peng’s Weibo account from search results. Peng disappeared from public view for more than two weeks, prompting the world’s biggest tennis stars and the United Nations to demand answers as to her whereabouts — as well as a full investigation into her allegations against Zhang.
Chinese authorities have not acknowledged the sexual assault allegations against Zhang and discussion of the subject continues to be censored in China.
Amid growing global outcry, individuals working for Chinese government-controlled media and the state sports system released a number of “proof of life” photos and videos of Peng. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it held at least two video calls with her, saying the Chinese tennis star “reconfirmed” she was safe and well.
In Sunday’s interview, Peng expressed her appreciation toward the IOC, saying she feels “very grateful” to the Olympic body and was “very happy to have video calls with them.”
Peng also said she wrote an email to WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon recanting the allegations “completely of my own will.” At the time, Simon questioned the validity of the email and said “we won’t be comfortable until we have a chance to speak with her.”
A spokesperson for the WTA told CNN on Monday, “it was again good to see Peng Shuai in a public setting and we certainly hope she is doing well.
“As we have consistently stated, these appearances do not alleviate or address the WTA’s significant concerns about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion. We remain steadfast in 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 incident led to the the WTA announcing an immediate suspension of all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, on December 1. CEO Simon said the decision was based on the “unacceptable” response of Chinese officials, including rushing to censor Peng’s allegations and ignoring calls for a full and transparent investigation.
The saga comes just a few months ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, an event which several Western nations have said their diplomats will boycott over China’s human rights record.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the government hoped “malicious speculation” about Peng’s well-being and whereabouts would stop, and that her case should not be politicized. The ministry has also said Peng’s situation “was not a diplomatic issue.”
CNN has repeatedly reached out for comment to both Peng and China’s State Council, which handles press inquires for the central government.
As vice premier, Zhang, 75, served on the party’s seven-person Politiburo Standing Committee — the country’s supreme leadership body — alongside President Xi Jinping from 2012 to 2017.
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