Peng Shuai appears to withdraw sex assault claims as WTA says it fears she is still being censored

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Peng Shuai appears to withdraw sex assault claims as WTA says it fears she is still being censored
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  • Shuai Peng
    Shuai Peng
    Chinese female tennis player (1986-)

Chinese tennis champion Peng Shuai has denied making any sexual assault accusations, nearly eight weeks after she alleged that the former vice premier of China, Zhang Gaoli, had forced her into sex.

“First of all, I want to emphasise something that is very important: I have never said that I wrote that anyone sexually assaulted me. I need to emphasise this point very clearly,” Peng told Singapore-based Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao.

The interview, the first such in nearly two months, was given on Sunday in Shanghai at a promotional event for the Beijing Winter Olympics.

On 2 November, the three-time Olympian and former Wimbledon champion had accused the top Chinese official of sexually harassing her after a romantic relationship.

In a 1,600-word post on China’s Facebook-like social media platform Weibo, Peng wrote: “Why did you come back and seek me out, take me to your home, and force me to have sex with you?” The post was addressed to Mr Zhang and represented a significant step in China’s #MeToo movement, but was quickly deleted from the social media platform.

Peng disappeared from public view shortly afterwards, sending shock waves across the sports community and international rights bodies. Amid speculation that she was under duress and being censored, she made some virtual appearances, including a video call with the International Olympic Committee. The Chinese state media’s foreign arm was also quick to report that Peng had withdrawn her accusations against Zhang. However, there have been concerns about the authenticity of these statements.

In her latest interview, Peng dismissed concerns that she was under surveillance, and said that she had been at home in Beijing, but was free to come and go wherever she wanted.

A video shared by the newspaper showed Peng standing on an observation deck at a freestyle ski competition.

The allegations against the 75-year-old Mr Zhang represent the first time a top politician of China’s Communist Party has been involved in sexual assault allegations since the start of the #MeToo movement in the country.

The allegations came amid reports of the Chinese government’s larger abuses of human rights, which led to a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics by the US and other western allies.

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has also said that it would suspend all events in China, owing to the controversy. The association sought an investigation into Peng’s social media post.

Following the latest interview, the WTA said it welcomed her appearance “in a public setting”, according to BBC News. But the WTA added that it did not “alleviate or address… concerns about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion”.

“We remain steadfast in our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation … into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern,” the WTA said.

Mr Zhang, a chief lieutenant to president and party leader Xi Jinping, has not commented on the matter so far.

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