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China’s Peng Shuai says there was ‘misunderstanding’ over her allegations, announces retirement

In carefully managed interview with French media, she denied accusing a former senior Chinese official of sexual assault

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai announced her retirement and denied having made sexual assault claims in an interview published Feb. 7 in a French newspaper. (Video: Reuters)

BEIJING — Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai said international concern over her well-being and apparent disappearance was a “huge misunderstanding,” in her first interview with Western media since she publicly accused a retired senior Chinese official of pressuring her into sex.

Speaking to French sports outlet L'Équipe, 36-year-old Peng announced her retirement and thanked international athletes and Women’s Tennis Association players for reaching out, but said she had not expected the outcry.

“This post has given rise to a huge misunderstanding from the outside world,” Peng said in an interview published Monday, referring to the account she posted on Chinese microblog Weibo in November about a fraught sexual relationship with powerful former vice premier Zhang Gaoli. “I hope that we no longer distort the meaning of this post. And I also hope that we don’t add more hype on this.”

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

The hour-long interview of arranged questions, the answers to which L'Équipe was required to release in full, was conducted at the Chinese Olympic Committee’s hotel in Beijing inside the coronavirus-fighting “closed loop” set up for the Winter Olympics. Wang Kan, chief of staff for the COC, was with Peng as she spoke.

“I never said anyone had sexually assaulted me in any way,” said Peng, dressed in a red Team China sweater. Since the post, she added, “My life has been what it’s supposed to be: nothing special.” She also announced her retirement from competitive tennis.

In a repetition of earlier statements, Peng told L'Équipe that it was she who had removed the initial account of her relationship with Zhang from social media, and she did so just because she “wanted to.

She also denied having disappeared. “It’s just that a lot of people, like my friends, including from the IOC, messaged me, and it was quite impossible to reply to so many messages,” Peng said. “At the end of the year, their [WTA’s] website’s communication computer was changed and many players had difficulty logging in at that time.

“My sentimental problems, my private life, should not be involved in sports and politics,” she added.

Separately, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on Monday said President Thomas Bach and IOC member Kirsty Coventry had dinner with Peng at the Olympics Club in Beijing on Saturday, where they talked about their shared experiences as athletes. The statement did not address her accusations.

In the emotional Weibo post in November, Peng described an affair with Zhang, now 75, in 2011 that he ended after he was promoted to a position on the Politburo Standing Committee at the apex of political power in China.

After his retirement, she wrote, Zhang invited her to his home and pressured her to resume the sexual relationship. After initially crying and rejecting the advance, Peng later relented. The two continued to see each other in secret until just before she posted to Weibo, when Zhang suddenly cut off contact after an argument.

As a rare public accusation of sexual impropriety involving a high-level Chinese Communist Party official, the post drew widespread discussion in China before it swiftly vanished — along with Peng herself and almost all related commentary on Chinese social media websites.

Even that short period was enough to reanimate China’s #MeToo movement, which has continued to gain momentum and inspire women to speak up about sexual harassment despite censorship, legal obstacles and arrests of leading feminist activists. An international campaign of athletes asking “Where is Peng Shuai?” piled pressure on Beijing to address the allegations.

After weeks of silence, Peng reemerged in what appeared to be carefully staged appearances in Chinese state media that were released exclusively to an international audience. Domestic media have not written about Peng’s latest interview, extending the almost total blackout of public discussion of the case within the country.

Lu Pin, a prominent Chinese women’s rights activist and founder of the media platform Feminist Voices, who now lives in the United States, said Peng’s new account of what happens “demonstrates a great deal of absurdity.” But Peng, Lu adds, should not be blamed for falling into a “trap set by a violent system” that engages victims to be part of denying that violence to the world.

“We should allow Peng to be safe in the way she can be,” but at the same time, “we must be aware of the system’s brutality and the harm it causes to our universal humanity and moral standards,” Lu said.

While Chinese feminist activists have praised the WTA for demanding an independent investigation and canceling tournaments in the country over Peng’s allegation, they have accused the IOC of being complicit in the Chinese government’s effort to end international scrutiny of the case.

Asked on Monday whether the organization would support an investigation if Peng requested it, IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said that it wasn’t up to the committee to judge whether such an action should be taken.

“We as a sports organization are doing everything we can to ensure that she is happy, and I don’t think it’s up for us to judge … just like it’s not for you to judge, in one way or another, her position,” Adams said.

Roman Stubbs contributed to this report.

Read more:

A woman won a landmark #MeToo case in China. Why is winning so hard?

The world deserves answers about Peng Shuai

Peng Shuai reappears on Chinese Internet amid silence of allegations

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