By Helen Regan and Jacob Lev, CNN
Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has denied making sexual assault allegations against a retired Communist Party leader, after more than a month of growing concern over his safety and his whereabouts that led the Women’s Tennis Association to withdraw from China.
“I have never spoken or written about anyone who sexually assaulted me,” Peng told Singapore-based Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao on Sunday, in his first comments to international media since the explosive allegations came to light.
When asked if she was able to move around freely or worried about her safety, Peng said that she had “always been free” and lived at her home in Beijing.
The interview took place on the sidelines of the International Ski Federation’s cross-country skiing competition in Shanghai on Sunday, where Peng was also pictured with Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming and two former Olympians: Sailor Xu Lijia and table tennis player Wang Liqin.
However, skepticism remains about Peng’s freedom of communication, as well as calls for an investigation into the allegations.
Peng said there was a misunderstanding about the social media post since deleted from his verified account on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, which detailed the allegations on November 2.
“First of all, it’s my private life. There may have been a lot of misunderstandings. Therefore, there shouldn’t be such a distorted interpretation here, ”she said.
According to screenshots in this post, the two-time doubles Grand Slam champion accused former Deputy Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli of pushing her to have sex at his home three years ago.
The immediate response from Chinese authorities was to censor any mention of the accusation online and to block Peng’s Weibo account from search results. Peng disappeared from public view for more than two weeks, prompting the world’s biggest tennis stars and the United Nations to demand answers as to his plight – as well as a full investigation into his allegations against Zhang .
Chinese authorities have not acknowledged the sexual assault allegations against Zhang, and discussion of the topic continues to be censored in China.
Amid a growing global outcry, people working for the Chinese government-controlled media and the state’s sports system have posted a number of “life-proof” photos and videos of Peng. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it had had at least two video calls with her, saying the Chinese tennis star had “reconfirmed” that she was fine.
In Sunday’s interview, Peng expressed her gratitude to the IOC, saying she felt “very grateful” to the Olympic body and was “very happy to have video calls with them.”
Peng also said she wrote an email to WTA CEO Steve Simon retracting the allegations “on my own accord.” At the time, Simon questioned the validity of the email and said “we won’t be comfortable until we have had a chance to speak with her”.
A WTA spokesperson told CNN on Monday, “It was once again good to see Peng Shuai in a public place and we certainly hope she is doing well.
“As we have always stated, these appearances do not alleviate or address the WTA’s significant concerns about their well-being and their ability to communicate without censorship or coercion. We stand firm in our call for a full, fair investigation. and transparent, without censorship, about his allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that aroused our initial concern.
The incident led the WTA to announce an immediate suspension from all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, on December 1. calls for a full and transparent investigation.
The saga comes just months before the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, an event several Western countries have said their diplomats will boycott China’s human rights record.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the government hopes “malicious speculation” about Peng’s well-being and fate will cease, and that his case should not be politicized. The ministry also said that Peng’s situation “was not a diplomatic problem.”
CNN has repeatedly sought comments from Peng and the Chinese State Council, which handles press inquiries for the central government.
As Deputy Prime Minister, Zhang, 75, served on the Standing Committee of the Politiburo Party, the country’s supreme body, alongside President Xi Jinping from 2012 to 2017.
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