Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has denied saying she was sexually assaulted, despite a social media post from last month in which she appeared to make the accusation against a former top Communist Party official.
he Lianhe Zaobao Chinese-language newspaper posted video of Peng taken on Sunday in Shanghai in which she said she has been mainly staying at home in Beijing, but was free to come and go as she chose.
Ms Peng told the paper: “First of all, I want to emphasise something that is very important. I have never said that I wrote that anyone sexually assaulted me. I need to emphasise this point very clearly.”
The reporter did not ask how or why the lengthy and highly detailed November 2 post appeared, or whether Ms Peng’s account had been hacked.
The paper said it interviewed Ms Peng at a promotional event for the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, which begin on February 4.
She was filmed on the observation deck of a facility where she watched a freestyle ski competition alongside former NBA star Yao Ming and other Chinese sports figures.
Ms Peng dropped out of sight after the accusation against former vice premier Zhang Gaoli briefly appeared on her verified Weibo social media before being swiftly removed.
Screenshots of the post were shared across the internet, drawing widespread concern about Ms Peng’s safety from politicians, fellow tennis stars and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which announced it was suspending all events in China indefinitely.
Following the posting, the three-time Olympian and former Wimbledon doubles champion appeared standing beside a tennis court in Beijing, waving and signing oversize commemorative tennis balls for children.
The foreign arm of state TV also issued a statement in English attributed to Ms Peng that retracted her accusation against Mr Zhang.
Will many people inside or outside China be convinced by the tennis player Peng Shuai’s declaration that she hadn’t actually accused a senior ex-member of the Chinese Communist leadership of sexual assault? We can only speculate about the pressure she must have been under.
— John Simpson (@JohnSimpsonNews) December 19, 2021
WTA chief executive Steve Simon questioned the emailed statement’s legitimacy, while others said it only increased their concern about her safety.
In the Lianhe Zaobao interview, Ms Peng said she wrote the statement in Chinese and it was later translated into English but that there was no substantive difference in meaning between the two versions.
Mr Zhang, 75, was a member of the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee until 2018 and a top lieutenant to president and party leader Xi Jinping. He has not appeared in public or commented on Ms Peng’s accusation.
Mr Simon said the move to put a halt to the tour’s play in China, including Hong Kong, came with the backing of the WTA board of directors, players, tournaments and sponsors.
It was the strongest public stand against China taken by a sports body – and one that could cost the WTA millions of dollars.
The WTA chief has made repeated calls for China to carry out an inquiry into the 35-year-old Ms Peng’s accusations and to allow the WTA to communicate directly with the former number one-ranked doubles player.
The International Olympic Committee has taken a different tack, with top officials saying they believe Ms Peng is fine after video chatting with her.
The controversy surrounding Ms Peng has added to protests over Beijing’s hosting of the Winter Games because of the government’s human rights abuses.