This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The global body governing women’s tennis said on Monday it remains concerned for the safety of Peng Shuai despite her recent public appearance and denial that she accused a former Chinese vice premier of sexual assault.
“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 Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) said in a statement sent to Reuters.
The statement came after Peng gave an interview to Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao newspaper saying she was free to come and go as she pleased, and that there had been “misunderstandings” about her Nov. 2 social media post, long since deleted.
In the video interview, Peng is shown with her hair in a braid, wearing a red “China” shirt and a black fleece.
“I have never said or written that anyone sexually assaulted me. This point must be emphasized very clearly,” Peng said.
Asked if she is currently under surveillance or monitoring, she replied: “Why would anyone monitor [me?] [I have] always been very free.”
Peng, who was world No. 1 doubles player in 2014, was incommunicado for some time after her initial post, which accused former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of pressuring her into a sexual relationship, raising concerns about her personal safety.
Then, state broadcaster CCTV, an official mouthpiece of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), published emails from Peng saying she was safe, and the International Olympics Committee (IOC) was able to speak to her by video call.
Peng told Lianhe Zaobao that she wrote the emails in Chinese “entirely of my own free will,” and that they were translated into English.
But rights activists said it is common for those under surveillance or investigation by the CCP to make scripted statements, often with a full production team, suggesting that the video call could have been similarly staged.
While the IOC has since backed away from international concern over Peng’s safety, the WTA and international rights groups have remained skeptical that she is genuinely free to go where she pleases and contact whomever she likes in private.
Commentators said the CCP is likely trying to ensure the story goes away ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.
“They want to eliminate any negative news ahead of the Winter Olympics,” Wang told RFA. “So they have gotten Peng Shuai to come forward to ‘clarify’,” current affairs commentator Wang Zheng told RFA.
Photos and video clips of Peng talking to fellow athletes Yao Ming and Xu Lijia in Shanghai, looking happy, have also been posted to Twitter by the CCP-backed Global Times.
French critic Wang Longmeng agreed that Peng’s “clarification” was likely scripted, as it comes amid growing calls for a boycott of the Games.
“Chinese officials are worried that Xi Jinping’s vanity project will be spoiled, so Peng Shuai has been asked to perform to a script,” he said. “Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao is playing the role of ‘foreign media’ here.”
“Yao Ming and the others were also scripted; Beijing has arranged all of this very skillfully.”
U.S.-based commentator Guo Baosheng said the concern for Peng’s safety had seriously damaged the CCP’s international image.
“That’s why they are using a number of different approaches, including asking Peng to issue several ‘clarifications’ and fabricating her so-called open letters, including the emails in English,” Guo said.
“The most recent were the shots of Peng Shuai meeting with Yao Ming in Shanghai, and the Lianhe Zaobao interview,” he said. “The Chinese government has many different ways to force someone to submit.”
Akio Yaita, Taipei bureau chief for Japan’s Sankei Shimbun newspaper, said the interview was an “extension of the farce.”
“The government has put pressure on [Peng] to settle the matter, and then arranged the Lianhe Zaobao interview for her,” he said.
“She may be forced to perform again in future … but we can’t believe any of it, because these aren’t her own words, but a script written by someone else.”