The retraction of a sexual-harassment allegation against a high-ranking Chinese Communist Party member by tennis star Peng Shuai has been met with global skepticism. Peng, 35, disappeared for nearly three weeks after she publicly accused a former vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, of forcing her into a sexual relationship, in a social-media post that was quickly snuffed out online.
On Sunday, Peng told a Beijing-friendly media outlet that the accusation against the former top official was in fact a “misunderstanding.”
“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 told the Singapore media outlet Lianhe Zaobao, before going on to say that there were many “misunderstandings” about her highly detailed November post on Weibo, China’s tightly censored social-media platform. The reporter then asked her if she was living freely, clearly addressing concerns from the international tennis community, including stars Serena Williams and Billie Jean King. “I’ve always been very free,” Peng responded without providing details.
The original post—in which she predicted her own demise after making the allegations—was widely shared after it was deleted from the platform by Chinese minders. In it, she detailed how Zhang forced her into a nonconsensual sexual relationship after inviting her to his home to play tennis. “I know that for someone of your eminence, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid,” she wrote in the original post. “But even if it’s just me, like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you.”
She was not seen again for nearly three weeks—until she popped up on a video conference with the International Olympic Committee amid global calls to boycott the Beijing 2022 Winter Games. The IOC had another conversation with her, but has not released any footage from either encounter.
The Women’s Tennis Association pulled its lucrative contract with China and called for a free and fair investigation into her claims, saying that it had been unsuccessful in reaching her after she wrote what they felt was a highly scripted letter to them insisting she was OK.
WTA chief Steve Simon said they were even less convinced by Sunday’s interview. “It was again good to see Peng Shuai in a public setting and we certainly hope she is doing well,” the WTA said in a statement. “As we have consistently stated, these appearances do not alleviate or address the WTA’s significant concerns about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion.”
They called 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.”
The Singapore outlet did not ask Peng about Zhang by name during their brief interview on the sidelines of a cross-country skiing event, during which she wore a black jacket with the flag of China over a red shirt emblazoned with the Chinese ideograms for China.
Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch immediately called foul in a tweet about the comment. “Wow, so natural, very real, everyone now believes it. Congratulations, the CCP!” Wang wrote.