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Peng Shuai denies making sexual assault allegations

With her backtracking on her original statements, the tennis star has created serious doubts about what is true and what is not.

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has walked back on her accusations of sexual assault against a senior communist party member, sparking widespread doubts.

In a shocking turn of events, the question of whether or not coercion has taken place is even more prominent now

Peng Shuai denies sexual assault allegations

In an interview on Sunday, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai denied making sexual assault allegations against a retired Communist Party leader. It has now been more than a month during which time there has been great concern for her safety and whereabouts, finally leading to the Women's Tennis Association halting its activities in China. "I have never spoken or written about anyone sexually assaulting me," Peng told Singapore-based Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao on Sunday. The comments mark the first time she has spoken with international media since the controversial allegations came to light. Asked if she was able to move freely during this time and if her safety had been threatened, Peng was short in her answer, saying she had "always been free." Peng also added that she had been living in her home in Beijing.

Peng Shuai's interview and stance increase doubts

Conducted on the sidelines of the International Ski Federation's cross-country skiing competition in Shanghai on Sunday, the interview also saw Peng photographed with Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming, and two former Olympians: sailor Xu Lijia and table tennis player Wang Liqin. Critics have called the interview a grandscale PR stunt. Indeed, there is an even greater sense of skepticism about how freely Peng has been allowed to communicate, as well as continued calls for an investigation into the allegations. Refering to her now deleted November 2nd post on her verified Weibo account - China's twitter like social media platform - in which she detailed the allegations, Peng said there had been a misunderstanding. "First of all, it's my personal privacy. There possibly has been a lot of misunderstanding. Therefore, there should not be such distorted interpretation here," she said.

What did Peng Shuai's post say?

Given that the post was deleted quite soon after it's publication, it is through the use of screen shots that any information has been gleaned. According to those screenshots, the two-time Grand Slam doubles champion accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of pressuring her into having sex at his home three years ago. Zhang who is 75, served on the party's seven-person Politiburo Standing Committee - the country's supreme leadership body - alongside President Xi Jinping from 2012 to 2017. Along with the removal of the post itself, the Chinese authorities also sought to censor any reference to the accusation online. Peng's Weibo account was also blocked from search results. Concern intensified even further when shortly after the incident, Peng disappeared from public view, leading to intense outcry in the international community, including some of the world's biggest tennis stars as well as the United Nations itself. Demands were made for answers regarding her whereabouts and a full investigation into her allegations against Zhang.

China's response and Peng's 'assurances'

To date Chinese authorities have not in anyway acknowledged the sexual assault allegations against Zhang and discussion of the subject remains off the table in China. There have, however, been a series of "proof of life" photos and videos released by state controlled media and the state sports system. It was later reported that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had participated in at least two video calls with her, saying the Chinese tennis star "reconfirmed" she was safe and well. Interestingly Peng referred to those calls during her interview on Sunday saying she feels "very grateful" to the Olympic body and was "very happy to have video calls with them." Peng also stated that she had written an email to WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon recanting the allegations "completely of my own will." Simon for his part was quick to place doubt on the validity of the email saying at the time, "we won't be comfortable until we have a chance to speak with her."

The WTA stands firm and so does China

According to a CNN report, a spokesperson for the WTA said, "it was again good to see Peng Shuai in a public setting and we certainly hope she is doing well. ...As we have consistently stated, these appearances do not alleviate or address the WTA's significant concerns about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion. 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."

At present, the WTA has continues to hold to it's initial decision suspend all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong. When the decision was announced on December 1st, CEO Simon said that it was based on the "unacceptable" response of Chinese officials, including rushing to censor Peng's allegations and ignoring calls for a full and transparent investigation. Of course from the Chinese perspective the whole scenario couldn't come at a worse time as the 2022 Beijing Winter Oylmpics is but a few months away. Indeed pressure has been mounting as several Western nations have out rightly stated that they will not be sending any of their diplomats given China's apparent human rights record. In response China's Foreign Ministry has ask for the "malicious speculation" surrounding Peng's status to stop. The ministry also added that Peng's situation "was not a diplomatic issue."


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