Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai appeared in a new video on Sunday claiming that her allegations of sexual assault against a former senior Chinese official, which prompted international outcry over her apparent silencing, had been misunderstood and she remained “very free.”
“I have never said or written that anyone has sexually assaulted me. I have to stress this point,” Peng told a reporter from Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao newspaper, in her first direct comments to journalists since she posted explosive claims on Chinese social media in November and disappeared from public view, reemerging only in carefully curated appearances amplified by Chinese state outlets.
In the short video interview, in which Peng appeared to laugh off the controversy, she referred to the contents of the statement as “a private matter.” “People seemed to have made a lot of misinterpretations,” she said, confirming for the first time the authenticity of the post last month on her Weibo profile.
Yet Sunday’s interview with a Chinese-language Singaporean outlet known for its pro-Beijing leanings failed to assuage concerns about Peng’s ability to speak freely in a country where authorities are known to extract confessions, often staged, from those who fall afoul of the state.
The World Tennis Association said in a statement Monday that “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,” it said.
In Sunday’s video, Peng appears to give an impromptu interview to a reporter who had spotted her on the sidelines of a cross-country skiing event in Shanghai. Peng smiles at the journalist and answers her questions before she greets him. Peng looks confused when Peng is asked whether she can leave her Beijing home.
“Why would I be monitored? Peng stated that she has always been free. Peng answered that she wrote the Chinese translation of her email.
When asked about travel outside of China, Peng said she had no upcoming tournaments or plans to go abroad, adding that she has “nothing to prove.” “What would I do abroad? She said, “You tell me.”
On Monday, a reporter with the state-run nationalist tabloid Global Times posted a video of Peng at the skiing event, chatting with Chinese basketball star Yao Ming.
Peng has not given interviews to any other international outlets and has not responded to messages sent to her official Weibo account. On Monday, her queries to the sports agents were unanswered. The Tianjin Municipal Bureau of Sports, under which Peng trained, did not respond to a faxed request for an interview with Peng. Peng was not available to interview by the Beijing Women’s Tennis Association.
A post on Peng’s official Weibo page last month claimed that former vice minister Zhang Gaoli had pressured her into having sex with him, and that Peng had subsequently entered into a long-term affair with the senior official, who is four decades older than her. According to the post, Peng had become angry at Zhang because he insisted on keeping their relationship secret.
“I know I can’t say it all clearly, and that there’s no use in saying it,” the post said. “But I still want to say it.”
Peng’s allegations sent shock waves through China, where her original post was quickly censored and discussion of the rare public allegations against a top leader continue to be blocked on social media platforms. Zhang, who is retired, has not responded publicly to Peng’s accusations. The China State Council Information Office did not respond to Peng’s request for an interview or sent questions by fax about whether Chinese prosecutors will investigate these claims.
Outside of China, Peng’s case has raised questions about the ethics of doing business in the country, where authorities are accused of human rights abuses such as the mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and suppression of civil liberties in Hong Kong. The WTA earlier this month suspended its tournaments in mainland China and Hong Kong over concerns about Peng’s safety.
The tennis star’s allegations also galvanized calls for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. Increasing numbers of countries, including Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, have stated that they won’t send representatives to the Games.
Alicia Chen in Taipei and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this repor