Peng Shuai says allegations misunderstood, but WTA remains concerned about 'censorship or coercion'

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MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 21: Shuai Peng of China in action during her Women's Singles first round match against Nao Hibino of Japan on day two of the 2020 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 21, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images)
An interview published Sunday was Peng Shuai's first with a non-Chinese-state-affiliated media outlet since her allegations of sexual coercion on Nov. 2. (Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images)

The Women's Tennis Association remains concerned about Peng Shuai's "well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion," even after the Chinese tennis star said in an interview with a Singaporean media outlet that her allegations against a high-ranking Chinese politician have been misunderstood.

In a video posted Sunday by Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore's largest Chinese-language newspaper, Peng said, according to translations, that she "never said or wrote about anyone sexually assaulting me."

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In the interview, seemingly her first with a non-Chinese-government-affiliated reporter, she said that she had indeed wrote a dubious November email to WTA leadership in which she recanted her allegations. And she clarified that she'd "absolutely" done so out of her own free will.

Peng addresses concerns

International concern for Peng's well-being exploded after a Nov. 2 post on her verified social media account included allegations that Zhang Gaoli, a former Chinese Communist Party vice premier, had coerced her into sex. Chinese authorities swiftly scrubbed the post, any mention of its allegations and any discussion of related topics from the country's highly censored internet. Peng then disappeared from public life for two weeks, leading to fears for her safety and freedom.

The WTA said its president, Steve Simon, attempted to contact Peng on multiple occasions. After Simon publicly expressed concerns that he couldn't reach her, and called for a "full and transparent investigation" into Peng's allegations, a Chinese state-affiliated media outlet, CGTN, posted what it said was an email from Peng to Simon that recanted the allegations. Simon, human rights experts and most of the Western world doubted the email's authenticity.

Ever since, Simon and the WTA have reiterated that videos released by Chinese media, news of calls with the International Olympic Committee, and other developments did not assuage their concern. In early December, citing “serious doubts" that Peng was "free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation,” Simon announced that the WTA was suspending all tournaments in China until Chinese authorities took "steps to legitimately address this issue."

Peng, in the video posted Sunday, speaking at a cross-country skiing event that she attended as a guest, said that she was living at home in Beijing, that she was "very free" and that nobody was keeping watch on her.

She addressed the widely discredited email to the WTA, explaining that she had written it in Chinese, and that the English version posted on Twitter by CGTN was an accurate translation.

In a Monday statement, however, 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, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern," the statement concluded.

Peng says allegations misinterpreted

The interview materialized when a Lianhe Zaobao reporter approached Peng as she exited a balcony at the skiing event. Peng asked if the reporter was recording video, then seemingly agreed to speak. On multiple occasions, she asked the reporter to repeat questions. When asked if she was being monitored, she expressed apparent confusion.

"Why would anyone monitor me?" she said. "I have always been free."

She then addressed what she called "misunderstandings" and "distorted interpretations" of her Nov. 2 social media post.

In it, Peng, 35, described having an on-and-off relationship with Zhang, 75, over multiple years. She detailed how, on one occasion, Zhang, a former member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, had taken her to his room and wanted to have sex with her. She said there was a guard standing outside the door. She said she felt scared and panicked. She said that after resisting sex, she couldn't stop crying; and that they eventually had sex.

She went on to describe what developed into a consensual relationship — a sexual and emotional one — but one that Zhang wanted to keep secret. Peng wrote that she couldn't even tell her mother about it. She wrote that over time, the situation became unbearable. "Sometimes I wondered if I was still human," she wrote, according to English translations. "I felt like a zombie, pretending every day to be someone else." She alleged that eventually, Zhang stopped communicating with her. "You played with me, and when you didn't want me anymore, you discarded me," she said

She wrote that the emotional impact of all this, and the power imbalance, had been difficult to face. Seemingly to explain why she was going public with it, she wrote, according to English translations: "Even if it's like throwing eggs against a stone, and a moth darting around a flame to destroy itself, I will speak the truth about us."

In the Lianhe Zaobao video, Peng addressed that post — though not its near-instant deletion and subsequent erasure — for the first time. She called it a "private" or "personal" matter, and said there were "misinterpretations" about it that weren't true. She didn't specify what those misinterpretations were.

Neither Zhang nor the Chinese government has addressed the contents of Peng's original post.

For that reason, among many others, human rights experts continue to doubt that Peng is acting and speaking freely. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said that Peng's latest retraction of her sexual assault claims "only deepen[s] concerns about the pressure to which the Chinese government is subjecting her."