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At Olympics, Peng Shuai Gives Interview Controlled by Officials

File: China's Peng Shuai serves to Japan's Nao Hibino during their first round singles match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan. 21, 2020.
At Olympics, Peng Shuai Gives Interview Controlled by Officials
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On Sunday, Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai gave an interview in which she denied making accusations of sexual wrongdoing against a high-ranking member of the Communist party. She also appeared to announce her retirement from tennis.

Reporters asked about the accusation of sexual wrongdoing she made late last year. Her answers were given in front of a Chinese Olympic official.

Peng talked with French sports newspaper L'Equipe. She also met International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach for dinner this weekend. Both seemed aimed at calming international concerns about the three-time Olympian and former top-ranked tennis doubles player. Fears for Peng's safety have taken attention away from the Winter Olympics underway in Beijing.

Peng told L'Equipe that the concerns were the result of "an enormous misunderstanding." The reporter had to send questions in advance, and a Chinese Olympic committee official sat in on the discussion, translating Peng's comments from Chinese.

The interview took place Sunday in a Beijing hotel. China's Olympic committee, with the IOC's help, had organized it. The main subject was Peng's playing career. At age 36, and after several knee operations, Peng said she could not see herself returning to championship-level professional tennis. She has not played in women's championships since February of 2020.

The newspaper published her comments word-for-word — in line with official requirements — in question-and-answer form.

A familiar pattern

L'Equipe asked Peng about sexual wrongdoing accusations that started in November and led to worries about her safety. The social media post was quickly removed from her account. She later remained out of public view for a while. That led to "Where is Peng Shuai?" questions online and from players and fans outside of China. The questions came in part because in China there is a history of people disappearing after they have spoken against the country’s leaders.

What happens next depends on the case, but it is not uncommon for the person in question to deny the statements or actions that first angered officials. Other times, the person simply stays quiet. Sometimes, their arrest is eventually announced.

Well-known Chinese individuals who have disappeared for periods of time in similar cases include the actor Fan Bingbing as well as businesspeople Jack Ma, Duan Weihong and Ren Zhiqiang.

FILE - Chairman of Alibaba Group Jack Ma speaks during a seminar in Bali, Indonesia on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018.
FILE - Chairman of Alibaba Group Jack Ma speaks during a seminar in Bali, Indonesia on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018.

Peng denies her claim

In November 2021, Peng wrote in a social media post that Zhang Gaoli, a former member of the party's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, had forced her to have sex three years ago even though she said “No” repeatedly.

Her post also said they had sex once seven years ago, and that she had developed romantic feelings for him after that. Zhang has not commented on the accusation.

"Originally, I buried all this in my heart," she wrote. "Why would you even come find me again, take me to your house and force me and you to have sexual relations?"

The interview with L'Equipe was her first talk with non-Chinese-language media since the accusation.

"This post resulted in an enormous misunderstanding from the outside world," she also said.

Asked by L'Equipe why the post disappeared from Peng's account, she said: "I erased it."

"Why? Because I wanted to," she added.

The IOC also worked Monday to calm the situation.

IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said, "We are a sporting organization, and our job is to remain in contact with her… I don't think it's for us to be able to judge, in one way, just as it's not for you to judge either."

Peng said in her interview, "… emotions, sport and politics are three clearly separate things. My romantic problems, my private life, should not be mixed with sport and politics."

Asked what her life has been like since the November posting, she replied: "It is as it should be: Nothing special."

Peng thanked fellow players who expressed concerns about her. They included 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, who wrote in social media, "We must not stay silent" in November. Williams had called for an investigation.

I’m Jill Robbins.

John Leicester and Sarah DiLorenzo reported on this story for the Associated Press. Jill Robbins adapted it for Learning English. __________________________________________________________

Words in This Story

enormous – adj. very great in size or amount

postn. a message on an online message service such as Instagram, Twitter or Facebook

romanticadj. involving love between two people

erasev. remove or delete

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