THE ENDGAME OF the Peng Shaui affair is slowly playing out.
China’s tennis star has again denied that she was sexually assaulted three years ago by former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, this time to the French sports newspaper, L’Equipe.
It was her first interview with non-Chinese state media since she made the explosive accusation against Zhang, with whom she has admitted having an on-off relationship for more than a decade.
Her 1,500-character Weibo post on November 2 was deleted within 30 minutes of going up, and the censors disappeared Peng’s online presence. She also dropped from public view, inducing international concern from fellow tennis professionals and the Women’s Tennis Association.
L’Equipe’s interview was conducted under the watchful eye of the Chinese Olympic Committee (COC) on the 16th floor of the luxury Beijing hotel that the committee is using as its headquarters for the Beijing Winter Olympics. The newspaper was required to pre-submit its questions to the COC and agree to print Peng’s answers without commentary.
Peng showed up wearing a tracksuit top of the Chinese Olympic ice hockey team and spoke in Chinese (although she has used English at tennis event press conferences in the past). Her answers were translated into English by the COC official who accompanied her, although it seems that L’Equipe had a translator in Paris listening in.
The interview lasted for almost twice its allotted 30 minutes. L’Equipe says it was not prevented from asking questions it had not submitted.
The published transcript shows Peng giving terse and often repetitive answers to any question about the case. The newspaper says she appeared tense at the start of the interview, crossing her arms across her chest and reverting to that posture whenever asked about her post and subsequent treatment.
A PR professional would have praised her for ‘staying on message’, getting her talking points out, and avoiding direct answers to the most awkward questions, including about the role of authorities.
So what can be read between these very few lines?
To this Bystander, the critical point is her twice repeated assertion that no sexual assault had occurred.
Authorities can now claim there is nothing to investigate. An enquiry into an alleged sexual assault by a former senior official would be complicated for a socially conservative and somewhat prudish top leadership. Senior party cadres are not supposed to have extra-marital affairs. Making a public example of Zhang would be doubly tricky. Although retired from public politics since 2018, he was in the Xi orbit.
There was never any intention of pursuing such an investigation. Nor to give any oxygen to China’s fledgling #MeToo movement, which the leadership has sought to suppress, as it does with all identity politics.
Peng professed that there had been a ‘huge misunderstanding’ over her post, claimed she had never said she had been sexually assaulted and that she did not want the post ‘twisted’ anymore or any more media hype around it.
However, she did not explain to L’Equipe what that misunderstanding was or why the original post had explicitly stated that she had been forced into having sex with Zhang. L’Equipe’s questioning did not pursue the point.
Similarly, there was no follow-up when Peng responded to a question about why the post was deleted within 30 minutes with, ‘Because I wanted to’. Her statement that she deleted the post was also at odds with what she hinted in her first post-disappearance email: malicious actors had posted it, not her.
Peng also reasserted that she had not disappeared. She was, she said, in touch with close friends but had had too many international messages and emails to reply to them.
Her other answer that caught this Bystander’s attention for its resonance with the party line was:
My love life problems, my personal life must not be mingled with sports and politics. And sports must not be politicised.
Peng indicated that she would retire from competitive professional tennis. At 36 and with failing knees, she would probably be coming to the end of her career as an elite player. Yet the timing is convenient on many fronts. She will not be touring the world and at risk of endless questions about the case. Instead, she can return to public circulation within China, where she is an iconic figure, as a loyal if chastened domestic ambassador for Chinese sport.
There is scant internal political cost to authorities to that; her allegations and the international campaign for their investigation have been censored from China’s public discourse.
Externally, authorities will ride out the continuing scepticism about her repudiations but rely on time to fade the event from memory and concern from front of mind.