It was the interview many sports journalists wanted: A sit-down with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, prepped and ready to talk for the first time with Western media about allegations she made of forced sex with a former top-ranked Communist Party official that triggered a global outpouring of fears for her safety.
Marc Ventouillac, one of two journalists for French sports daily L’Equipe who spoke to Peng this week in a restrictive interview arranged with Chinese Olympic officials, says he is still unsure if she is free to say and do what she wants.
“It’s impossible to say,” he said in English. “This interview don’t give proof that there is no problem with Peng Shuai.”
China’s intent, however, was clear to him: By granting the interview as Beijing is hosting the Winter Olympics, it appeared that Chinese officials hope to put the controversy to rest, so it doesn’t pollute the event.
“It’s a part of communication, propaganda, from the Chinese Olympic Committee,” Ventouillac told The Associated Press on Tuesday, the day after L’Equipe published its exclusive.
With “an interview to a big European newspaper, they can show: ‘OK, there is no problem with Peng Shuai. See? Journalists (came), they can ask all the questions they wanted.”‘
The interview, as well as a dinner Peng had with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and appearances she made at Olympic venues have shone a deliberate and controlled spotlight on the three-time Olympian and former top-ranked doubles player. On Tuesday, Peng sat with Bach and watched American-born Chinese freestyle skier Eileen Gu win gold at the women’s big air event.
Ostensibly, the aim is to put to rest the question that fellow players and fans around the world have been posting online: Where is Peng Shuai?
“It’s important, I think, for the Chinese Olympic Committee, for the Communist Party and for many people in China to try to show: ‘No, there is no Peng Shuai affair,”‘ Ventouillac said.
The women’s professional tennis tour said the interview “does not alleviate any of our concerns” about the allegations she made in November.
“Peng took a bold step in publicly coming forth with the accusation that she was sexually assaulted by a senior Chinese government leader,” Steve Simon, the WTA’s chief executive, said in a statement. “As we would do with any of our players globally, we have called for a formal investigation into the allegations by the appropriate authorities and an opportunity for the WTA to meet with Peng — privately — to discuss her situation.”
Ventouillac said Peng “seems to be healthy.” To secure the interview, organized through China’s Olympic Committee with help from the IOC, L’Equipe agreed to send questions in advance and publish her responses verbatim, in question-and-answer form. Originally allotted a half-hour, Ventouillac said they ended up getting nearly double that and asked all the questions they wanted, beyond the “8 or 10” they pre-submitted.
“There was no censorship in the questions,” he said.
A Chinese Olympic official sat in on the discussion, translating Peng’s comments from Chinese. The newspaper then used an interpreter in Paris to ensure the accuracy of the comments that it published in French on Monday. It was her first sit-down discussion with non-Chinese-language media since the accusation.
“She answered our questions without hesitating — with, I imagine, answers that she knew. She knew what she was going to say,” Ventouillac said. “But you can’t know whether it was formatted or something. She said what we expected her to say.”
“We started by asking questions about tennis because that’s her domain, her field. It’s not controversial. It helped her relax, unwind,” he said. “We then got to the questions about the ‘Peng Shuai affair’ itself and there, my sense from her looks — and my colleague Sophie had the about same impression — was that she was being more attentive, becoming more nervous. A raised eyebrow. A squint. So she was being careful with the questions and also, I think, careful with her responses.”
Ventouillac said one of L’Equipe’s aims for the interview was to show Peng face-to-face that “she is not alone” and that people around the world are concerned for her.
He believes that international support has helped protect her during the controversy. Someone not so well-known outside China likely would be in jail for such an allegation against a senior official, Ventouillac speculated.
In a lengthy post in November, Peng wrote that Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier and member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals. The post, on her verified account on a leading Chinese social media platform, Weibo, also said they had sex once seven years ago, and that she developed romantic feelings for him after that. Zhang has not commented on the accusation.
“Originally, I buried all this in my heart,” she wrote. “Why would you even come find me again, take me to your house and force me and you to have sexual relations?”
It was quickly scrubbed from her account. Peng told L’Equipe that she erased it but didn’t give her reasons beyond saying: “Because I wanted to.”
She also said the post has been misunderstood.
“Sexual assault? I never said that anyone made me submit to a sexual assault,” the newspaper quoted her as saying.
“This post resulted in an enormous misunderstanding from the outside world,” she also said. “My wish is that the meaning of this post no longer be skewed.”
Associated Press journalist Mohamed Abdullah contributed.