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Peng Shuai says her allegations of sexual assault against former Chinese official were misunderstood

The Chinese tennis star said on Dec. 19 that she remained “very free” in a video interview with a Singaporean newspaper. (Video: Reuters)

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai appeared in a new video on Sunday claiming that her allegations of sexual assault against a former senior Chinese official, which prompted international outcry over her apparent silencing, had been misunderstood and she remained “very free.”

“I have never said or written that anyone has sexually assaulted me. I have to stress this point,” Peng told a reporter from Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao newspaper, in her first direct comments to journalists since she posted explosive claims on Chinese social media in November and disappeared from public view, reemerging only in carefully curated appearances amplified by Chinese state outlets.

In the short video interview, in which Peng appeared to laugh off the controversy, she referred to the contents of the statement as “a private matter.” “People seemed to have made a lot of misinterpretations,” she said, confirming for the first time the authenticity of the post last month on her Weibo profile.

Yet Sunday’s interview with a Chinese-language Singaporean outlet known for its pro-Beijing leanings failed to assuage concerns about Peng’s ability to speak freely in a country where authorities are known to extract confessions, often staged, from those who fall afoul of the state.

What you need to know about the case of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai

The World Tennis Association said in a statement Monday that “these appearances do not alleviate or address the WTA’s significant concerns about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion.”

“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,” it said.

In Sunday’s video, Peng appears to give an impromptu interview to a reporter who had spotted her on the sidelines of a cross-country skiing event in Shanghai. Before the journalist greets her, Peng turns toward the reporter with a smile, readily answering questions. Peng appears confused when asked if she is free to come and go from her home in Beijing.

“Why would I be monitored? I’ve always been very free," Peng said. Asked if she was indeed the author of an email in November — which Chinese state outlet CGTN said Peng had sent to the WTA, insisting that “everything is fine” — Peng said she had written the Chinese version of the message, which was later translated.

When asked about travel outside of China, Peng said she had no upcoming tournaments or plans to go abroad, adding that she has “nothing to prove.” “What would I do abroad? You tell me,” she said.

On Monday, a reporter with the state-run nationalist tabloid Global Times posted a video of Peng at the skiing event, chatting with Chinese basketball star Yao Ming.

Peng has not given interviews to any other international outlets and has not responded to messages sent to her official Weibo account. Queries to her sports agents went unanswered on Monday. The Tianjin Municipal Bureau of Sports, under which Peng trained, did not respond to a faxed request for an interview with Peng. The Women’s Tennis Association in Beijing said it could not make her available for an interview.

A post on Peng’s official Weibo page last month claimed that former vice minister Zhang Gaoli had pressured her into having sex with him, and that Peng had subsequently entered into a long-term affair with the senior official, who is four decades older than her. The post said Peng was angry at Zhang for insisting on keeping their affair a secret.

“I know I can’t say it all clearly, and that there’s no use in saying it,” the post said. “But I still want to say it.”

Peng Shuai reappears on China’s censored Internet amid silence over sexual assault claims

Peng’s allegations sent shock waves through China, where her original post was quickly censored and discussion of the rare public allegations against a top leader continue to be blocked on social media platforms. Zhang, who is retired, has not responded publicly to Peng’s accusations. China’s State Council Information Office has not responded to a request for an interview with Zhang or faxed questions about whether Chinese prosecutors would investigate the claims.

Outside of China, Peng’s case has raised questions about the ethics of doing business in the country, where authorities are accused of human rights abuses such as the mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and suppression of civil liberties in Hong Kong. The WTA earlier this month suspended its tournaments in mainland China and Hong Kong over concerns about Peng’s safety.

The tennis star’s allegations also galvanized calls for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. A growing number of countries including the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have said they will not send government representatives to the Games.

Alicia Chen in Taipei and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

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