Peng Shuai’s Latest Public Appearance Raises More Questions Than Answers

After accusing a high-level Chinese official of sexual assault in November, the tennis player seemed to disappear and sparked the #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag.

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Peng Shuai’s Latest Public Appearance Raises More Questions Than Answers
Photo:Fred Lee (Getty Images)

Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player who largely disappeared from public life last November after alleging a high-level Chinese official had sexually assaulted her, has resurfaced for yet another string of unsettling public appearances at the Beijing Winter Olympics.

According to a statement released by the International Olympic Committee on Monday, Peng joined Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, and Kirsty Coventry, the former chair of the Athletes’ Commission and an IOC member, for a private meeting on Saturday. Details of the meeting haven’t been made public and the IOC has declined to comment on whether it believes Peng’s initial claims about being sexually assaulted. They’ve also declined to comment on whether or not she was speaking publicly under duress from Chinese officials.

Beyond her meeting with Bach and Coventry, Peng delivered an interview with French sports newspaper L’Equipe alongside a Chinese Olympic official, in which she called speculation around her situation a “misunderstanding.”

“Sexual assault? I never said that anyone made me submit to a sexual assault,” Peng said, according to L’Equipe. Of her since-deleted November social media post detailing her allegations against former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, Peng said, “This post resulted in an enormous misunderstanding from the outside world. My wish is that the meaning of this post no longer be skewed.”

When asked about why she had deleted the post, Peng replied, “I erased it. Why? Because I wanted to.”

Peng’s now-scrubbed posts featured allegations against Zhang written as an open letter to him. She claimed he had sexually assaulted her, and pressured her to have a nearly 10-year sexual relationship with him, writing: “I did not have any evidence, and it was simply impossible to have evidence. I couldn’t describe how disgusted I was, and how many times I asked myself am I still a human? I feel like a walking corpse. Every day I was acting, which person is the real me?”

A few weeks later, the IOC facilitated a widely scrutinized video call between Peng and Bach, and released a statement at the time that said she was “doing fine” and wished “to have her privacy respected.” The IOC offered no details about how the virtual meeting had been organized, prompting many to speculate that the Chinese government had arranged it with the committee as part of a propaganda push.

In December, Peng resurfaced yet again in a six-minute video for a Singaporean news outlet and claimed that she never accused anyone of sexually assaulting her. In the interview, which Peng gave while traveling to Singapore to watch a ski competition, she also said that she had not been detained, wasn’t being monitored by anyone, and was able to travel freely.

Despite this odd sequence of events, Peng expressed confusion to L’Equipe this week about international concern for her safety, including the viral #whereispengshuai hashtag that spread shortly after her post about Zhang. The hashtag was shared by tennis stars Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka late last year and the Women’s Tennis Association even pulled all of its competitions out of China in solidarity.

Peng said: “I would like to know: Why so much worry? I never disappeared. It’s simply that many people, like my friends and among them those from the IOC, sent me messages, and it was completely impossible to respond to so many messages.” When L’Equipe asked Peng directly what her life has been like since November, she said it was “as it should be: nothing special.”

“I was to say first of all that emotions, sport, and politics are three clearly separate things,” she told the outlet. “My romantic problems, my private life, should not be mixed with sport and politics.”

These recent public appearances and statements have done little to quell international concern about Peng’s safety and autonomy, only raising more questions.

China and the IOC have long been accused of sportswashing, attempting to sanitize the country’s reputation through sports amid the Beijing Olympics. Censorship, language barriers, and the ambiguity around the IOC’s statements and meetings with Peng ultimately make it difficult to gauge the truth about her situation. Peng’s disappearance from public life and concern for her safety follow a history of punishment and repression against survivors and MeToo organizers in China who have publicly shared stories of sexual abuse from high-level Chinese officials and celebrities.

In a Monday press conference, IOC spokesperson Mark Adams confirmed to reporters that the IOC keeps in touch with Peng, but said he doesn’t think the situation is “for us to be able to to judge, in one way, just as it’s not for you to judge either.”

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