Chinese star Peng announces retirement from tennis, dismisses safety concerns

Chinese women’s tennis star Peng Shuai has announced her retirement and referred to a social media post that described her being pressured into a sexual relationship with former vice premier Zhang Gaoli as “a huge misunderstanding,” according to a French newspaper.

In an interview with L’Equipe amid the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, Peng once more denied that she had made any allegation of sexual assault against Zhang, and said she won’t return to professional tennis, citing a knee injury.

Peng also told the paper she had never “disappeared,” brushing aside international concern for her safety and well-being.

The uncertain fate of Peng, who disappeared from the public eye after posting allegations of sexual abuse against Zhang Gaoli, only to re-emerge in carefully controlled photos, videos and pro-CCP media interviews, led the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) to suspend all tournaments on Chinese soil.

But political commentators said Peng’s comments, however often they are repeated, are almost certainly scripted by ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials, who wish to make the scandal go away.

“The Chinese authorities will have imposed a mandatory settlement on Peng Shuai, which will include agreements regarding what happens to her in future,” current affairs commentator Wei Xin told RFA, commenting on the latest interview.

“They are under huge political pressure … to play down the Zhang Gaoli sex scandal and to defuse something that is potentially explosive for the country,” he said.

Peng, 36, also told L’Equipe that she recently had dinner with International Olympics Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach, telling him that she wouldn’t be competing professionally any more due to an old knee injury that had required multiple surgeries, and her age.

Former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, and tennis star Peng Shuai, who has accused a the former Chinese Communist Party high official of pressuring her into a sexual relationship, in file photos. Credit: AFP/Reuters

No free will

Shih Chien-yu, a visiting professor at Taiwan’s Tsinghua University, said Peng is highly unlikely to be acting out of free will, and is unlikely to get permission to leave China any time soon anyway.

“Her personal rights have been sacrificed,” Shih said. “All her rights, whether her choice of where to live, what she can say or self-expression, are basically totally gone now.”

He said CCP leader Xi Jinping is keen to make the scandal go away, as he prepares to seek an unprecedented third term in office at the 20th Party Congress later this year.

“Everything she says will be according to instructions given to her by the CCP,” Shih said. “They will be hoping that, by handling it in this way, the matter will be brought to a close.”

Commentators have said Bach is himself being used as a conduit to quieten international concern and outrage over Peng’s treatment by the CCP during the Feb. 4-22 Winter Games.

Concerns were raised about Peng’s safety after she disappeared from public view after accusing a former vice premier of sexual assault.

While Peng has since retracted her comments and claimed her account of the affair with Zhang Gaoli didn’t include allegations of assault, rights groups and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) have said those statements were likely staged and scripted by the CCP, in a bid to play down concerns ahead of the Olympics.

Last month, Australian Open organizers banned, then allowed, spectators wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan “Where is Peng Shuai?” after an international outcry accusing them of capitulating to the event’s Chinese sponsors.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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