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Chinese Tennis Player Peng Shuai Again Recants Sexual Abuse Allegations: ‘Huge Misunderstanding’

Alina Wang
A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights, politics, tech, and society.
Published: February 7, 2022
BEIJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 28: Peng Shuai of China in action against Daria Kasatkina of Russia during the women's singles first round match 2019 China Open - Day 1 on September 28, 2019 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Fred Lee via Getty Images)

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai says there has been a “huge misunderstanding” over a social media post in which she claimed to be a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a former Communist Party leader.

The post was swiftly deleted about 10 minutes after being posted and Peng was not heard from for over three weeks following the accusation, sparking global concern over her safety and wellbeing.

Peng, 36, first came forward on Nov. 2, 2021 alleging that she had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, who also served on the Chinese Communist Party’s seven-man Politburo Standing Committee. The PbSC is the Party’s most powerful leading body.

Peng described in a lengthy Weibo post (China’s version of Twitter), that she had agreed to a consensual affair with the former top official around a decade ago. However, three years ago, when Zhang was retired, he allegedly invited her to his home and pressured her into having sex. 

Following the post, Peng’s account was blocked and even searches with the word “tennis” were blocked across the internet, showing the extreme level of control the Chinese regime wields on its Internet censors. 

Interview conducted under ‘highly controlled circumstances’ 

But while speaking to France’s L’Equipe newspaper today, Peng said there were “enormous misunderstandings” in regards to her post about Zhang and said she had never been a victim of sexual abuse. 

“I never said that anyone made me submit to a sexual assault,” the newspaper quoted Peng as saying. “My private life should not be brought up in sports or politics.”

Peng also hinted at the possibility of retiring from tennis and said she doesn’t see herself returning to “tour-level professional tennis” after going through multiple knee surgeries. She hasn’t played on the women’s tour since February 2020.

However, according to observers at the scene, the interview was done in highly controlled circumstances. Stephen McDonell, a BBC reporter covering the Beijing Olympics, compared it to a propaganda exercise, adding that it “left more questions than answers.”

L’Equipe said it was required to submit questions in advance and the interview was conducted at Beijing’s Winter Olympics “under the presence of a representative from China’s Olympic Committee who also translated her comments from Chinese.”

Simon: Peng’s interview ‘does not alleviate concerns’

This isn’t the first time Peng has recanted her allegations of sexual abuse against Zhang. After “disappearing” for weeks following her public accusation, an email allegedly written by Peng was released on Nov. 18, 2021 by state-run media China Global Television Network. The email claimed that she was fine and was just resting at home.

Doubts were immediately cast over the authenticity of the email and concerns raised over Peng’s actual safety and wellbeing. The Women Tennis Association’s (WTA) Chairman and CEO Steve Simon urged the Chinese regime to thoroughly investigate Peng’s claims and voiced concern over whether she was being coerced into retracting her previous statements.

Upon release of Peng’s “email,” Simon said “the statement released by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” adding that “The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation – without censorship – into Peng Shuai’s sexual assault accusation.”

In response to Peng’s interview with the French publication today, Simon said “It’s always good to see Peng Shuai, whether in an interview or attending the Olympic Games,” however, he added that Peng’s “recent in-person interview does not alleviate any of our concerns about her initial post from November 2nd.”

The WTA decided to end all tournaments in China over concerns surrounding Peng’s safety on Dec. 3, 2021. 

Peng made her first public appearance on Sunday, Dec. 19, during an interview aired by Singaporean media outlet, Lianhe Zaobao, at the sidelines of a cross-country skiing event in Shanghai.

“First, I need to stress one point that is extremely important, I have never said or written that anyone has sexually assaulted me, I have to clearly stress this point,” Peng said in the video, adding that her post was a “private matter” about which “people have many misunderstandings.”