I didn't accuse anyone of sexual assault, says Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai

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BEIJING - Former world tennis champion Peng Shuai has denied accusing anyone of sexually assaulting her, adding that a social media post on her verified Weibo account last month had been misunderstood. 

“I have never said or written anything accusing anyone of sexually assaulting me. I would like to emphasise this point very clearly,” Ms Peng told Singapore’s Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao on Sunday (Dec 19) on the sidelines of a sporting event in Shanghai.

It was the first time she had directly addressed the matter in person since she disappeared from public view early last month.

Ms Peng had been embroiled in a high-profile sex scandal after the post shared on her Weibo account contained allegations that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli raped her during an on-off relationship spanning several years.

Mr Zhang, who has remained silent on the allegations, had served on China’s top ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee, between 2012 and 2017, making him one of China’s most powerful men.

The non-consensual act had purportedly happened after Mr Zhang, 75, invited Ms Peng, 35, who was a former world doubles No. 1 player, to a tennis game with him and his wife at his house three years ago, according to screenshots of the post.

It also apparently rekindled an extramarital affair that ended only on Nov 2, after Mr Zhang started ignoring Ms Peng.

She said on Sunday that the Weibo post was “a matter related to my personal privacy” and that “everyone has had many misunderstandings (about the post)”.

She did not elaborate on what she meant by misunderstandings, why her Weibo account has been banned or how the post came to be on her verified account.

Checks by The Straits Times on Monday showed that the Weibo account remains banned. 

Ms Peng also addressed concerns that she had been placed under house arrest after the post, by stating on Sunday that she has “always been very free” and that she had been residing in her home in Beijing, in a six-minute video posted by Zaobao.

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Ms Peng’s well-being and whereabouts became a matter of international concern after censors scrubbed her lengthy 1,500-word post, minutes after it appeared online. She was also not seen in public in subsequent weeks.

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has been the loudest advocate for Ms Peng’s safety, going as far as to suspend all tournaments in China unless Beijing agrees to “investigate the allegation of sexual assault in a full, fair and transparent manner”, said a statement on Dec 1.

Ms Peng’s appearance on Sunday and her comments do not change the WTA’s stance, according to news agency Agence France-Presse.

The news outlet reported on Monday that the WTA still had “significant concerns about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion”.

The tour stands to lose millions if it pulls out of China.

The White House, United Nations and several athletes, including Grand Slam champions Novak Djokovic, Naomi Osaka and Chris Evert have also expressed similar worries about Ms Peng’s safety.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular press briefing on Monday, in response to media queries, that the WTA’s stance on Ms Peng was not a diplomatic issue, and did not say more.

Ms Peng’s latest comments are not the first in recent weeks when she has reassured the international community that she is well.

Most recently, Ms Peng held two video calls with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach on Nov 21 and Dec 2, where Mr Bach checked in on Ms Peng’s well-being.

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Earlier, Ms Peng had also written an e-mail to WTA head Steve Simon to reassure him that she was neither missing nor in any danger. Ms Peng confirmed on Sunday that she had sent the e-mail to Mr Simon.

The screenshot of the e-mail, which was first shared by Chinese state broadcaster CGTN on Twitter at 1.36am on Nov 18, did not carry a date. 

Ms Peng told Mr Simon the sexual assault allegations were not true, and that he and the WTA should check with her first before running any news about her.

Mr Simon told the press then that he doubted the origins of the e-mail he received.

He said CGTN’s tweet in the wee hours “only raises my concerns” about Ms Peng’s safety and whereabouts.

“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the e-mail... or believes what is being attributed to her,” he said.

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