Zaobao exclusive video interview: Peng Shuai says she made no claims of sexual assault

In a doorstop interview at a cross-country ski competition in Shanghai, Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai tells Zaobao unequivocally that she has neither talked nor written about sexual assaults against her. This follows her earlier Weibo post which caused a furore when it seemed to level sexual assault allegations at former Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli. While the post was later removed and Peng has appeared at public events, the international community continues to question her safety and well-being. Gu Gonglei has the story.
Peng Shuai in a screen grab from a Zaobao video interview, 19 December 2021. (SPH Media)
Peng Shuai in a screen grab from a Zaobao video interview, 19 December 2021. (SPH Media)

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai turned up at the Shanghai stop of the FIS Cross-Country Skiing China City Tour. In an interview with Lianhe Zaobao, she stressed that she has never talked or written about anyone sexually assaulting her, and that her email response to the Women's Tennis Association (WTA)’s CEO, Steve Simon, last month was “according to her own wishes”, and that she has been living freely.

The two-day competition that opened on 18 December is a Category A event organised by the International Ski Federation (FIS), where scores count towards qualifying for the Beijing Winter Olympics that opens on 4 February 2022. The men’s and women’s semi-finals and finals were held on the morning of 19 December on a 1.5-kilometre route on a man-made track along the Huangpu River, the final events of the Yangpu stop, with only invited guests as spectators.

During the last event of the men’s finals which began at 12:10pm, Peng Shuai, former Chinese basketball player Yao Ming, former table tennis player Wang Liqin, and sailor Xu Lijia watched the race from the designated fifth-floor open-air viewing gallery, where they stayed for about 20 minutes.

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Peng Shuai (centre) chatting with Yao Ming (right) and Xu Lijia (left), 19 December 2021. (Screen grab from Twitter/@qingqingparis)

Peng wore a red top with “中国” (China) printed on it, black pants, and white sneakers, along with a black down jacket with “China” on the back. Her hair was braided and she wore light makeup, looking natural and relaxed. She chatted with the other three athletes, was smiling from time to time, and glanced at her mobile phone.

The U-shaped gallery was outside the VIP room, where the group also spoke with another accompanying male staff member, while a photographer and security personnel stood nearby.

As the group approached the elevator after the men’s race ended at around 12:30pm, this reporter managed to get an eight-minute video interview with Peng, where she responded about her personal safety and freedom, as well as her communications with the WTA and International Olympic Council (IOC).

Peng said sternly, “First and foremost, I must emphasise, I have never said or wrote about anyone sexually assaulting me. That’s a very important point.”

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Peng Shuai (left) with Xu Lijia, 19 December 2021. (Twitter/@li_ding1)

Peng said she had been at her home in Beijing, and arrived in Shanghai on 18 December to watch the ski race. When asked if she had been put under surveillance, she paused before asking, “Why would anyone monitor me? I have always been free.”

When this reporter asked about the sexual assault allegations, Peng said sternly, “First and foremost, I must emphasise, I have never said or wrote about anyone sexually assaulting me. That’s a very important point.” With regards to what’s written in her Weibo posts, she said this was her “personal issue” and “there are many misunderstandings” about them.

Letter to WTA Chairman Steve Simon 'according to her own wishes'

As to the email she wrote to WTA chairman Steve Simon that was later made public by Chinese state media CGTN, an English-language international news channel, Peng said that the Chinese version was written by her “according to her own wishes”, but the English version was a translation as her command of English did not allow her to translate the Chinese letter into English. “It’s no different from the one I wrote to Mr Simon personally," she said.

As for her video calls with IOC president Thomas Bach, Peng said that she could not recall the exact dates that they took place, but confirmed that the calls were made “in Beijing”. As to whether she had plans to travel overseas, Peng replied that she did not have immediate plans as there were no competitions now and also in view of the pandemic situation. Besides, “What can I do if I travel abroad now?” she asked.

(Graphic: AFP)
(Graphic: AFP)

Early last month, it was suddenly exposed on the Chinese internet that 35-year-old Peng had been sexually assaulted by 75-year-old retired former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli. Following which, Peng disappeared off social media.

CGTN posted the English version of the email from Peng to Simon, in which Peng denied that she had been sexually assaulted. The IOC also released a statement on Peng’s video call with Bach, and short videos of Peng attending other events were also posted online. However, these statements failed to dispel the international community’s doubts about her safety and freedom. Simon also expressed that he had “a hard time believing” that Peng Shuai wrote the email.

Following the escalation of the “Peng Shuai incident”, the WTA announced on 1 December that it would be suspending all WTA tournaments in mainland China and Hong Kong.

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