Peng Shuai: Weibo post sparked 'huge misunderstanding'

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China's Peng Shuai serves during a match against Canada's Eugenie Bouchard in January 2019Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Ms Peng, seen here at the Australian Open in 2019, insisted she never disappeared from public life

Tennis star Peng Shuai says there has been a "huge misunderstanding" over a post in which she claimed she was forced into having sexual relations with a former Chinese party leader.

The November 2021 social media post was swiftly deleted and Ms Peng disappeared for weeks, sparking global concern.

But now, speaking to France's L'Equipe newspaper, Ms Peng says she never alleged she suffered a sexual assault.

However, the interview was done in highly controlled circumstances.

The BBC's China correspondent Stephen McDonell compared it to a propaganda exercise, saying it left more questions than answers.

L'Equipe had to submit questions in advance, and the interview was conducted at the Winter Olympics under the presence of a representative from China's Olympic Committee who also translated her comments from Chinese.

Ms Peng told the outlet she was living a normal life - a line which has also been used by Chinese state officials about her previously. She also expressed thanks for the concern directed towards her.

"I would like to know: why such concern?... I never said anyone sexually assaulted me," she told L'Equipe.

The 36-year-old sporting star also hinted she could retire from professional tennis.

"Considering my age, my multiple surgeries and the pandemic that forced me to stop for so long, I believe it will be very difficult to regain my physical level," she told L'Equipe.

On 2 November, Ms Peng had published a 1,600-word essay on Chinese social platform Weibo where she accused former Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her to have sex with him.

The post detailed her relationship with him, but also included accusations that on at least one occasion she had felt coerced into sex. The post was shared widely on Chinese social media before it was removed less than an hour after publication.

In the months that followed, Ms Peng denied making the accusations.

She told L'Equipe interview the post had "given rise to a huge misunderstanding from the outside world".

Ms Peng also added that she had deleted the post herself because she "wanted to". But she did not elaborate on how the post had been misunderstood.

Every attempt by the Communist Party, at times in collusion with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), to play down the Peng Shuai controversy just seems to inflame it, leaving more questions.

In this case, French media outlet L'Equipe, in publishing these latest highly controlled comments has been as much involved in a propaganda exercise as in an "interview".

The paper said it agreed to publish only her answers and not include any commentary at all around them.

Peng Shuai is reported to have said that she "never said anyone had sexually assaulted me".

Well the obvious question is: In that case, what did you mean when you wrote on social media about Zhang Gaoli - former Politburo Standing Committee member - and said to him directly and publicly: "带我去你家,逼我和你发生关系" ?

That line could be translated as: "You took me to your house and raped me" or "You took me to your house and forced me to have sex with you" or "You took me to your house and pressured me into having sexual relations with you".

Having multiple potential translations has caused confusion.

Either way, these are serious allegations about a very senior government figure. We still don't know what the tennis star meant because L'Equipe did not ask her.

The interview was granted to the French outlet following permission from the Chinese Olympic Committee. L'Equipe said that despite submitting questions prior to the interview, it was able to ask more on the day.

The IOC on Monday also reported that the Chinese athlete had had dinner with its president, Thomas Bach, in the Chinese capital, Beijing, on Saturday, as a follow-up meeting for the pair.

Mr Bach had been one of the first authorities to vouch for Peng's welfare after he held a video call with her during the period of concern about her treatment by state authorities.

The IOC has been criticised by some rights groups for failing to address China's human rights record in the lead up to and during the Winter Games.

The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) led calls for the allegations in the statement to be investigated and pulled all of its events from China in protest. In a statement released on Monday evening, the WTA said the latest in-person interview had done nothing to alleviate its concerns about Ms Peng's wellbeing.

"We have called for a formal investigation into the allegations by the appropriate authorities and an opportunity for the WTA to meet with Peng - privately - to discuss her situation," said the body's chief executive, Steve Simon.

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