COMMENT: Peng Shuai’s denial of sexual assault raises more questions

·Senior Editor
·5-min read
Peng Shuai's interview with Lianhe Zaobao on the sidelines of a skiing competition in Shanghai on 19 December 2021. (SCREENSHOT: Zaobaosg/YouTube)
Peng Shuai's interview with Lianhe Zaobao on the sidelines of a skiing competition in Shanghai on 19 December 2021. (SCREENSHOT: Zaobaosg/YouTube)

SINGAPORE — The denial by Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai that she was subject to sexual assault in a media interview has raised more questions since her explosive post of the alleged incident emerged last month.

Peng was attending a skiing competition held in Shanghai on Sunday (19 December) when she was approached by a reporter from Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao. During the video interview lasting about six minutes, Peng answered questions ranging from her alleged sexual assault, her now deleted Weibo post, her supposed correspondence with the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) to her travel plans.

But the interview has failed to ease concerns about Peng’s well-being. ​​In a statement on Monday, the WTA said that the interview did "not alleviate or address the WTA’s significant concerns…We remain steadfast in our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault”.

The latest chapter of the saga has only fuelled further speculations and questions about Peng.

Why did Peng retract her original allegations?

In her Weibo post that sent shockwaves around the world, Peng alleged that former Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli had coerced her into having sex with him and that they had an on-off relationship over several years. The post was scrubbed off the internet quickly, but not before screenshots of her allegations went viral.

But Peng later allegedly said in an undated email shared by state-owned China Global Television Network (CGTN), “The news in that release (WTA’s statement on its website), including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true.”

In her interview with Zaobao, Peng claimed the email that she sent to the WTA chief Steve Simon addressing the statement by Simon was “absolutely” according to her wishes.

Peng also told Zaobao that she has “never said or written about anyone sexually assaulting me. That’s a very important point”. She added, “I know there are many misunderstandings but there is no distorted interpretation.”

It remains a mystery as to why Peng would acknowledge the existence of her deleted post but failed to give satisfactory answers regarding her allegations in the post.

Why was there no mention of Zhang in the interview?

Peng wrote in the Weibo post, "I know that someone of your eminence, Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli, you'll say that you're not afraid but even if it's just striking a stone with a pebble, or a moth attacking a flame and courting self destruction, I will tell the truth about you", according to a BBC report.

Peng said in the interview that her post was a “personal issue”. She did not mention any name or whether her post was hacked while the Zaobao reporter did not press Peng to elaborate on her original allegations against Zhang.

Clearly, the omission to mention Zhang underscored that he is the Chinese Communist Party elephant in the room.

Was Peng’s interview spontaneously conducted?

Zaobao said in its report that the video interview with Peng was an “exclusive”. Zaobao said that its reporter had approached Peng by a lift to conduct the interview.

In the video, Peng was seen walking with several individuals including former Chinese basketball star Yao Ming at the competition venue. Peng turned her head towards the direction of the reporter before the latter greeted her.

The reporter asked, “Can I talk to you for a minute?”… “Why did you come today?”

Peng appeared surprised and turned her head away from the reporter before she asked her, “Are you taking a video?”

Chen Qingqing, a Global Times journalist, posted a video of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai's visit to a skiing competition venue in Shanghai on 19 December 2021. (SCREENSHOT: Chen Qingqing/Twitter)
Chen Qingqing, a Global Times journalist, posted a video of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai's visit to a skiing competition venue in Shanghai on 19 December 2021. (SCREENSHOT: Chen Qingqing/Twitter)

Was the Zaobao interview part of broader considerations on how the saga might be perceived?

A number of international media outlets have attempted to contact Peng. Among them, Reuters said in its story about the Zaobao interview that it has been unable to reach Peng since her Weibo post. Was access to Peng part of broader considerations of how any such interview by Reuters or any Western media outlet would be reported?

Chinese state reporters have been posting videos and images of Peng attending various events. Among them was Chen Qingqing, a journalist at the state-owned Global Times, who posted about Peng’s appearance in Shanghai on her Twitter account. Chen wrote, “A friend sent me this video showing Chinese tennis star player Peng Shuai talked (sic) with Yao Ming, one of the most beloved players in @NBA history, this morning at an event “FIS Cross-Country Skiing China City Tour’ in Shanghai.”

Why then wasn’t any Chinese media outlet given the opportunity to conduct Peng’s first face-to-face interview since the saga broke? Was such an interview with a Chinese media outlet not arranged due to possible perceptions of lack of credibility?

Was the interview by Zaobao a doorstop that caught Peng by surprise? Or was it arranged to lend credence to her comments given that Zaobao is seen as a media outlet from “neutral” Singapore despite perceptions of it being a Chinese-language publication that leans towards Beijing’s views?

Peng Shuai's interview with Lianhe Zaobao on the sidelines of a skiing competition in Shanghai on 19 December 2021. (SCREENSHOT: Zaobaosg/YouTube)
Peng Shuai's interview with Lianhe Zaobao on the sidelines of a skiing competition in Shanghai on 19 December 2021. (SCREENSHOT: Zaobaosg/YouTube)

Is Peng able to move and speak her mind freely?

In an early part of the interview, Peng said she has always been staying at home. When asked if she has freedom of movement and whether anyone is monitoring her, she replied, “Why would anyone monitor me? I have always been free.”

The views expressed are the writer's own.

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