Peng Shuai's Beijing Interview Was 'Forced TV Confession,' Activists Warn

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai again denied claims of sexual assault during a controlled interview in Beijing this weekend, but activists are sounding the alarm that her statements were "forced" and part of an ongoing propaganda effort.

Peng, 36, has been the subject of international concern for months since she alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a former top government official in a social media post in November. That post was quickly taken down and censured by Chinese media, and Peng proceeded to disappear from public view for several weeks.

The incident drew significant concern from human rights groups, fans, and sports organizations who begged the question "Where is Peng Shuai?" and called for investigations into China's actions along with proof that Peng was safe and acting of her own accord.

But for months, the tennis star has appeared in controlled public settings alongside Chinese officials and claimed that the situation is a "misunderstanding" and that she never meant to make the assault allegations in the first place. Her message during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics this weekend was exactly the same, with Peng again denying her own past remarks.

"Sexual assault? I never said anyone had sexually assaulted me in any way," Peng said during an interview in Beijing with the French newspaper L'Equipe on Sunday. "This post resulted in an enormous misunderstanding from the outside world," she added. "My wish is that the meaning of this post no longer be skewed."

However, conditions of the hour-long interview did not allow for follow-up conversations, and all questions had to be submitted in advance while a Chinese Olympic committee official observed the discussion, according to the Associated Press.

Those limits, and the details of the situation taken in its entirety, caused a number of activists and social media users to express skepticism that Peng was speaking freely.

"The simple truth is, #Pengshuai is forced to say what the Chinese authorities want her to say. It is a sophisticated 'forced TV confession'," wrote Chinese human rights lawyer, Teng Biao.

Teng also noted in an interview with the German news outlet Deutsche Welle that "human rights activists, human rights lawyers, or foreign nationals have been forced to make televised confessions in China in the past."

Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, added that the interview was likely a matter of government "propaganda."

"Peng may or may not be saying what she actually thinks—we simply don't know. Orgs should think twice before engaging with her. Don't ask a person how she feels knowing she can't speak freely. Don't be played into being part of the CCP propaganda scheme," Yaqiu Wang wrote.

Others pointed out that L'Equipe failed to press Peng specifically on the contents of her allegations. In her lengthy social media post, Peng wrote that Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier, had forced her into a sexual relationship.

"Pengshuai could have been saying to Zhang Gaoli: 1."You took me to your house and raped me"? 2."You took me to your house and forced me to have sex"? or 3."You took me to your house and pressured me into having sexual relations"? But L'Equipe didn't ask," wrote BBC reporter Stephen McDonnell.

Researcher Kyle Orton wrote online, "Poor Peng Shuai, molested and now forced to officially say she never said that."

In addition to the interview with L'Equipe, Peng also met with International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach this weekend and was seen attending a China-Norway Olympic curling match with an IOC member.

Following that meeting, IOC spokesman Mark Adams declined to say whether or not the organization believes Peng is speaking freely.

"We are a sporting organization, and our job is to remain in contact with her and, as we've explained in the past, to carry out personal and quiet diplomacy, to keep in touch with her, as we've done," he told a news conference. "I don't think it's for us to be able to judge, in one way, just as it's not for you to judge either."

Where is Peng Shuai?
Activists have warned that Chinese Tennis star Peng Shuai's latest interview was "forced." Here, spectators wearing "Where is Peng Shuai?" T-shirts are pictured in the stands of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 29. WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images