An interview conducted by French sports magazine L’Equipe with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has fuelled more concern about the extent of control over her story and welfare.
In the stage-managed interview, published today (February 7th) Peng gave scripted answers to L’Equipe and its reporters were unable to ask her why she had posted the original sex allegations against a former Chinese vice-premier. The post was deleted 20 minutes after being published and the Chinese state has been accused of forcing her to go into hiding.
Thomas Bach, the IOC President, met with Peng at the weekend alongside Kirsty Coventry, the former chair of the Athletes’ Commission and an IOC. member. A later IOC statement said Peng was at the Winter Olympics and attending events, including a curling match between China and Norway on Saturday night. She also attended figure skating today.
Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the interview is part of Communist Party ‘propaganda’ and urged organisations to think twice before engaging with Peng ‘knowing she can’t speak freely’.
During the L’Equipe interview, attended by Chinese Olympic officials, Peng said the issue had been “an enormous misunderstanding”. Peng did not reply directly to a question about whether she has been in trouble with Chinese authorities since the post. Instead, she stated: “I was to say first of all that emotions, sport and politics are three clearly separate things, My romantic problems, my private life, should not be mixed with sport and politics,” the newspaper quoted her as saying.
Asked what her life has been like since the November posting, she replied: “It is as it should be: Nothing special.”
Mark Adams, a spokesman for the IOC declined to say whether the committee believed she was speaking under duress from government officials. He noted that the IOC had remained in constant communication with Peng in recent weeks to ensure that she was physically safe.
Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer, branded the interview a ‘forced confession’ that Peng likely gave ‘under great pressure’, mirroring tactics, he said, used by China against human rights activists in the past.
Our organisation, the News Media Coalition, today calls upon Olympic and Chinese authorities to ensure Peng is able to freely decide how to conduct her interaction with the Press, which has helped maintain visibility of her case and global concerns about her welfare.
The Women’s Tennis Association said last night in a statement: “It’s always good to see Peng Shuai, whether in an interview or attending the Olympic Games. “However, her recent in-person interview does not alleviate any of our concerns about her initial post from November 2. “To reiterate our view, Peng took a bold step in publicly coming forth with the accusation that she was sexually assaulted by a senior Chinese government leader. “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 to meet with Peng – privately – to discuss her situation.
Marc Ventouillac, one of two L’Equipe journalists who spoke to Peng remains unsure if she is free. “It’s impossible to say,” he said in English, adding that the interview doesn’t prove that she is safe. Ventouillac says it seems that China’s intent was to grant the interview so that Chinese officials could draw a line under the controversy and prevent the winter Olympic being overshadowed by human rights concerns.
Andrew Moger, Chief Executive of the News Media Coalition of major publishers and news agencies, said: ‘Sport is at the centre of society and it’s vital that the Press are able to tell the whole story of sport – its successes and failings, winners and losers, the pressures on sports stars and about how sport influences social attitudes and change. Peng is an icon and inspiration to many – but questions remain about the way she is being managed. She must be free, and evidently free, to decide how to conduct her interaction with the Press.’