Peng Shuai retracts previous claims of sexual assault, but concerned parties are not convinced

Society & Culture

In the latest development on Peng Shuai's saga, the Chinese tennis player, whose account of sexual assault by a retired Party official had ignited weeks of international uproar, told a Singaporean newspaper that the controversy was a result of a misunderstanding. But her retraction of previous claims doesn't seem to hold much sway with people concerned about her safety and well-being.

Adam Hunger/Reuters

Chinese tennis star Péng Shuài 彭帅, who had rarely been seen in public in recent weeks after accusing former Chinese vice premier Zhāng Gāolì 张高丽 of sexual assault, has directly discussed the claims she made for the first time during a public appearance over the weekend. But she denied ever accusing anyone of sexually assaulting her, suggesting that international concern about her safety and whereabouts was a result of a misunderstanding.

Peng made the comments on Sunday during an interview that seemed staged but was presented as a doorstop, with Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, a Singapore-based Chinese-language newspaper that is usually pro-Beijing. The paper said it talked to Peng in Shanghai at a promotional event for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which is due to start in Beijing on February 4.

The China Vibe.

Subscribe to The China Vibe, our society and culture newsletter, to get a free weekly roundup of the most interesting stories from China.

A video posted by the newspaper on its website and to Youtube (in Chinese) shows Peng watching a skiing competition alongside former NBA star Yáo Míng 姚明, retired table tennis player Wáng Lìqín 王励勤, and other Chinese sports figures.

  • In the video, a reporter approached Peng after the event. She says: “First of all, I must stress that I never said or wrote about anyone sexually assaulting me. This is something I want to emphasize and clarify.”  
  • When asked about her Weibo post on November 2, in which she alleged that Zhang forced her into sex several years ago and then carried on an extramarital affair with her, Peng called the issue a “private matter” and said without elaborating that people had “misunderstandings” and “distorted interpretations” of her account. 
  • Peng also denied that her movements had been restricted or that she had been forced to make any statements against her own will. “Why would someone keep watch over me? I have been very free all along,” Peng said, adding that she had been at her home in Beijing for most of the time.

Peng, 35, made headlines in November when she went public with her allegations. The post was censored shortly thereafter, and for about two weeks, Peng completely disappeared from the public view, igniting a global wave of concern for her safety and well-being. 

  • Peng’s name and social media posts from and about her have been scrubbed from the Chinese internet.
  • The air of suspicion surrounding her disappearance worsened after the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) provided conflicting stories on the situation: While the IOC said it had spoken to Peng twice and she confirmed her safety in both conversations, the WTA remained skeptical and decided to suspend matches in China while seeking to establish independent contact with Peng.

Sunday’s interview was not the first time that Peng — directly or indirectly — reversed her previous assertion. In an email attributed to Peng that was published on November 17 by CGTN, the international arm of state broadcaster CCTV, the tennis star purportedly tells WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon that the allegations of sexual assault are “not true” and that “everything is fine” with her. 

  • Given CGTN’s long history of producing and broadcasting forced confessions from political detainees, the email was met with a considerable amount of skepticism, with many people questioning its authenticity. 
  • But in her interview with Lianhe Zaobao, Peng confirmed that the letter was written by her and that she did it “completely” out of her own volition. She went on to explain that she wrote the email in Chinese at first and CGTN translated it into English on her behalf. “But the message is no different from what I replied to Mr. Simon,” Peng said.

The WTA, however, is not convinced. in a statement to news agency Agence-France Presse, the tennis organization said that although “it was again good to see Peng Shuai in a public setting,” her appearances in the past few weeks did not “alleviate or address” its significant concerns about Peng’s 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 added.