In Supervised Interview with International Media Outlet, Peng Shuai Describes the “Huge Misunderstanding” of Her Sexual Assault Allegation 

On Monday, French sports daily L’Équipe published an interview with Peng Shuai, her first appearance with an independent or international media organization since she accused former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault in a Weibo post on November 2. In the highly-orchestrated interview supervised by an official from the Chinese Olympic Committee (COC), Peng denied the accusation she previously made and proclaimed her own well-being. She told L’Équipe, to skepticism from many following her case around the world, that her life since November 2 “has been what it’s supposed to be: nothing special.” 

The interview was conducted by L’Équipe sports journalists Sophie Dorgan and Marc Ventouillac, who have been in Beijing reporting on the Winter Olympics. They say they sought the interview “despite the limits and constraints the interview would be subjected to, knowing full well [Peng Shuai] would repeat her previous words” from a December 2021 interview with a Chinese state-media outlet in which she disowned her original accusation. In an introduction to the interview transcript, published in a rare English edition of L’Équipe, Dorgan and Ventouillac described how they obtained the interview and the conditions under which it was held:

It seemed to us that the safest way to contact her was through the Chinese Olympic Committee (COC). […] The request was submitted with little hope for success and thinking that even if the interview were granted, each word would be most carefully weighed. We sent our request through the IOC to Mr Gou Zhongwen, President of the COC, on 18 January. The response came last Thursday only, in the form of an email from Mr Wang Kan, COC Chief of Staff, in which he explained the athlete had agreed to meet with us provided that she would answer in Chinese, that she would receive the questions in advance and that the interview would be published without any comment.

As for us, we had told them the COC would not check the interview beforehand, and we knew we would need to look beyond the athlete’s words. The interview was confirmed for yesterday morning at 11:30, Chinese time, in a fancy Beijing hotel where the COC has established its quarters.

[…] The discussion was anticipated to last half an hour but it ran for almost twice that. We were allowed to ask more questions than planned, even those not explicitly written on the list we had agreed to send. [Source]

During the interview, COC chief-of-staff Wang Kan remained in the room. While Peng had previously used English in press conferences on tour with the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), she replied to the interview questions in Chinese. Wang translated her responses, but L’Équipe verified her responses with a translator in Paris before publishing. 

The transcript of the interview dove straight into the controversy of her accusation and disappearance. Regarding her accusation, she said: “Sexual assault? I never said anyone had sexually assaulted me in any way.” On the deletion of her Weibo post, she said: “I erased it. […] Why? Because I wanted to.” L’Équipe did not follow up to ask why Peng posted it in the first place. As for her disappearance from the public view, she said: “I never disappeared. Everyone could see me.” Peng also stated that the WTA psychological support team sent her an email before and after the WTA’s November 14 statement regarding fears of her disappearance, which she found “a bit excessive,” prompting her to respond personally to WTA chairman Steve Simon. “Several copies were sent and I wrote those emails myself. It was my personal statement,” Peng said. 

During the interview, Peng also announced that she would retire from professional tennis. The 36-year-old athlete—once ranked as the world’s number one doubles player—referenced the pandemic, her age, and multiple knee surgeries that have made it difficult for her to resume playing at a competitive level. She stated, “Deep down, I was hoping, dreaming of winning a medal [in the Tokyo Olympics,] but because my knee was injured, I couldn’t take part ….” Peng also turned down the journalists’ invitation from French tennis player Nicolas Mahut to play mixed doubles with him at the next French Open, although she remained open to joining a veterans’ team during retirement. 

On Thursday, after being pressed by reporters, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach vowed to support an investigation into Peng’s accusation of sexual assault, but only if it were her decision. A long-awaited meeting between Bach and Peng took place over dinner at the Olympic Club in Beijing on Saturday, the night before her interview with L’Équipe. The two were joined by Kirsty Coventry, former chair of the Athletes’ Commission and an IOC member. An IOC spokesperson declined to say whether the IOC believed that Peng was speaking under duress from the Chinese government, instead stating: “I don’t think it’s a judgment for the I.O.C. to make — we are a sporting organization […] I don’t think it’s up to us to be able to judge, just as it’s not for you to judge, either, in one way or another, her position.” A separate statement from the IOC described the Saturday evening meeting between Peng and IOC officials:

Peng Shuai informed the President that she would attend several events at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 over the coming days. Later that evening,  she and Kirsty Coventry attended the mixed curling match between China and Norway.

During the dinner, the three spoke about their common experience as athletes at the Olympic Games, and Peng Shuai spoke of her disappointment at not being able to qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. In this context, she also shared her intention to travel to Europe when the COVID-19 pandemic is over, and the IOC President invited her to Lausanne to visit the IOC and The Olympic Museum, to continue the conversation on their Olympic experiences. Peng Shuai accepted this invitation.

Kirsty Coventry and Peng Shuai also agreed that they would remain in contact.  And all three agreed that any further communication about the content of the meeting would be left to her discretion. [Source]

On Monday, after Peng’s interview with L’Équipe, the WTA stated that its position remained unchanged:

Meanwhile, Chinese news websites and social media are devoid of any mention of Peng Shuai, and Chinese diplomats continue to deflect when questioned about her.

Now that Peng has been interviewed by an international media outlet, some wonder how her situation will evolve from here. At China Change, Yaxue Cao argued that Peng’s case has followed the CCP’s predictable storyline: a denial under duress, suppression of public discussion, and accusations that the international community are “hyping” the event to denigrate China. Peng, like many high-profile individuals who fell afoul of the CCP and were subsequently presented to the media under close supervision, publicly disavowed her original claims in a way that resembled a forced confession. Her comments, which echoed CCP talking points, will now facilitate the CCP’s attempts to discredit her accusation and dismiss concerns about her well-being:

There was a huge misunderstanding in the outside world following this post. I don’t want the meaning of this post to be twisted anymore. And I don’t want any further media hype around it.

[…] First of all, I’d like to say that feelings, sports and politics are three very distinct things. My lovelife problems, my personal life must not be mingled with sports and politics. And sports must not be politicised because when that happens, most of the time it means turning one’s back on the Olympic spirit and it goes against the will of the sporting world and the athletes. [Source]

Apparently confined to Beijing, forced to retire, and under strict surveillance, Peng may never be in a position to give a more open interview to other international media outlets. However dismal her chances of freely expressing herself and regaining her life as “a perfectly normal girl, a perfectly ordinary tennis player,” Peng’s initial Weibo post and personal struggle are a testament her irrepressible strength that will inspire more women to speak out, as Lü Pin wrote in Dissent Magazine (translated by CDT’s Anne Henochowicz): 

“I’m throwing eggs at the wall,” Peng Shuai wrote in her Weibo post. “I’m a moth to the flame. I am courting disaster.” She must have known the risk she was taking when she typed out Zhang Gaoli’s name.

[…] By finally telling her story—a story of resistance whose main subject is a woman, a story of the coercion, domination, and intimidation she has personally suffered—Peng Shuai has testified to the violence of those in power. Though she hasn’t presented any evidence, her testimony is authentic. People have always known “they” are degenerate, brutal, and cavalier. Peng’s testimony is shocking simply because it is vivid, concrete proof of this. More infuriating is that even a woman as remarkable and independent as her could not save herself from predation.

[…] Peng described herself as “worthless” and mentioned more than once that she wanted to die. This in fact proves the persistence of her self-esteem. Like other victims, Peng knows in her heart that she shouldn’t be treated like this. This is the real reason she spoke out: not to seek justice, but to speak her truth and restore her sense of self. I’m sure that Peng had already made this judgment when she hit “post.” This must be the journey of so many women of the #MeToo movement: they blame themselves for not being the perfect victim, and they have no way of knowing how the public will react; yet they still speak out, not just out of impulse, but because of an irrepressible strength inside them.

[…] And yet I’m sure this is not the end. As long as Peng outlives her abuser, she wins, despite all the hardship she must go through. As for other women, I believe many of them have absorbed her message: to be vigilant about the brutality of this system, to call out women’s grievances and suffering, to demand justice. While they are being silenced, women are learning to combine their voices. Who knows what the chorus will become tomorrow. [Source]


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