The Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai said over the weekend that she had never actually accused anyone of sexual assault, a blatant contradiction of her own explosive words last month — and more circumstantial evidence that her media appearances are being stage-managed by Chinese authorities.
“First of all, I want to emphasize something that is very important,” Peng said, per an ESPN translation of her comments. “I have never said that I wrote that anyone sexually assaulted me. I need to emphasize this point very clearly.”
Peng also said that she has been living at home in Beijing, and appeared confused (or faux-confused?) when asked whether she had freedom of movement, insisting that she did. And she said that a strange email reassuring the world that she was fine, which was widely thought to have been written by Chinese authorities, had actually been composed by her.
The comments came during a supposedly impromptu interview conducted by a reporter from Lianhe Zaobao, a Chinese-language newspaper in Singapore run by the Singaporean government. It took place at the International Ski Federation’s Cross-Country Skiing China City Tour in Shanghai, an event featuring other celebrities like Yao Ming, held in advance of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. It seems to be the latest clumsy effort from the Chinese government to scrub a highly embarrassing episode from memory.
On November 2, Peng had posted a long message on China’s Sina Weibo about her relationship with former high-ranking Communist Party official Zhang Gaoli. She alleged that after years of a consensual relationship with the married Zhang, he had forced her into sex several years ago. Chinese censors quickly removed the post, but it had already ricocheted around the internet, after which Peng vanished from public view for weeks.
Peng has surfaced on video a few times after her initial disappearance — at a Beijing restaurant, at a junior tennis tournament, and in two video calls with International Olympic Committee officials. But each appearance has been carefully stage-managed, and nobody from the Women’s Tennis Association or any other western sporting body has been able to independently verify that Peng is acting on her own accord.
The IOC has taken a soft line on the episode, not wanting to offend its hosts ahead of the Olympics in February. But earlier this month, the Women’s Tennis Association took the drastic and unprecedented step of suspending its many lucrative tournaments in China going forward, until the organization can speak with her freely and China launches a true investigation into her allegations.
In a statement on Sunday, the WTA made clear that Peng’s latest appearance had not allayed its unease:
“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,” the WTA said in a statement to multiple media outlets. “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.”