By Tony Munroe and Yew Lun Tian
BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai said on Sunday that she had never accused anyone of sexually assaulting her, and that a social media post she had made early last month had been misunderstood.
Peng’s well-being became a matter of concern among the global tennis community and rights groups when she appeared to allege that a former Chinese vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her in the past. After that post, she was absent from public view for nearly three weeks.
“First, I need to stress one point that is extremely important, I have never said or written that anyone has sexually assaulted me, I have to clearly stress this point,” Peng said in the video posted by Lianhe Zaobao, a Singapore media outlet.
Peng’s remarks on Sunday marked the first time she had addressed the matter on camera in public. She spoke on the sidelines of a cross-country skiing event in Shanghai.
She said that her post on Weibo, a Twitter-like social media site, which had been quickly removed, was a “private matter”.
Peng, 35, said in the video that “people have many misunderstandings” about her Weibo post. She did not elaborate.
She also said she had been living at home in Beijing without supervision. In the video, she was not asked about Zhang and did not mention him.
Reuters has been unable to reach Peng since her Weibo post.
The Women’s Tennis Association, which early this month said it would suspend tournaments in China immediately due to concerns over the treatment of Peng and the safety of other players, continued to call for an investigation.
“It was again good to see Peng Shuai in a public setting and we certainly hope she is doing well,” the Florida-based WTA said in a statement.
“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,” the WTA said.
“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.”
China has not directly commented on Peng’s initial post, but said after the WTA’s move to suspend tournaments in China that it “opposes the politicization of sports”.
Zhang has not commented on the matter.
Discussion of the scandal, which emerged as Beijing prepares to stage the Winter Olympics in February, has been tightly censored in China.
On Sunday, Peng appeared on a fifth-floor viewing balcony with athletes in various sports, including former NBA basketball star Yao Ming, and watched for about 20 minutes, the Singapore paper said.
The three-time Olympian wore a black jacket with a China flag and a red T-shirt bearing the characters for China.
Previously, Peng had been seen in photos appearing at a tennis tournament in Beijing, and in a video having dinner at a restaurant that was posted on Twitter by a state media editor.
On Twitter, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, Yaqiu Wang, commented sarcastically on the interview, “Wow, so natural, very real, everyone now believes it. Congratulations, the CCP!” The reference was to China’s ruling Communist Party.
Peng said in the video posted on Sunday that she had personally written a letter last month to WTA head Steve Simon, in which she denied the allegation of assault, and that an English translation of it by Chinese state media was accurate.
Simon had said at the time that he “had a hard time believing” that Peng had actually written the email or believed what had been attributed to her.
(Reporting by Tony Munroe and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing, Brenda Goh in Shanghai, and Chen Lin in Singapore; Editing by Stephen Coates and Clarence Fernandez)