Journalist Allowed to Interview Peng Shuai Admits It Was ‘Propaganda’

Richard Heathcote
Richard Heathcote

At the Australian Open tennis in Melbourne last month, fans wore T-shirts asking the question: “Where is Peng Shuai?” It was not just a political protest; there was genuine concern for the fate of the Chinese tennis star who all but disappeared from view after a social media post accusing a senior Chinese politician of rape.

Of course, those T-shirts would never be allowed at the Beijing Winter Olympics—and it’s not exactly T-shirt weather—but the question no longer needs to be asked: Peng Shuai has been popping up all over town, playing her part in what seems to be a concerted effort by the Chinese to move the story on. A cover-up, but in plain sight.

There was dinner on Saturday night with Thomas Bach, IOC president and former German fencer, where the two were said to have compared their sporting experiences, and Peng, 36, described her sadness at failing to qualify for last year’s Tokyo Summer Games.

She also popped up at a mixed doubles curling match and then, the following evening, at the figure skating, as well as giving an interview to the French sports newspaper L’Equipe in which she denied ever having accused anyone of assaulting her and said that her words in the since-deleted Weibo post had been misunderstood. “I never disappeared. It’s just that a lot of people, like my friends, including from the IOC, messaged me, and it was quite impossible to reply to so many messages,” she said.

On Tuesday, despite super-strict COVID restrictions that have kept even the most sports-mad Chinese fans at home, Peng was in the stands again, watching 18-year-old Californian skier Eileen Gu, competing for her mother’s native China, win gold in the freestyle Big Air competition.

Wearing a black knit hat with the Olympic rings and a black coat with the Chinese flag, Peng exchanged greetings with IOC boss Bach. She also acknowledged a journalist’s greeting, although she declined to answer questions as she left the venue at a converted steel mill on the outskirts of Beijing.

The former world No. 1 doubles player, now officially retired, appears to be the most sought-after VIP of the Beijing Games, her accusations against former vice premier Zhang Gaoli forgotten.

But Marc Ventouillac, one of the two L’Equipe reporters who interviewed Peng, said he still did not know if she was speaking freely or not.

“It’s impossible to say,” he told the Associated Press, in an English-language interview on Monday. “This interview don’t give proof that there is no problem with Peng Shuai.”

Ventouillac said the Peng interview had been arranged through the Chinese Olympic Committee, with pre-submitted questions and an agreement that her responses would be published verbatim. In the event, the interview carried on for an hour, twice as long as planned, and Peng answered all the questions put to her.

He had no doubt, though, that the interview was part of a deliberate campaign to stop the row overshadowing the Beijing Games any more than it already has.

“It’s a part of communication, propaganda, from the Chinese Olympic Committee,” Ventouillac said, adding that with “an interview to a big European newspaper, they can show: ‘OK, there is no problem with Peng Shuai. See? Journalists... they can ask all the questions they wanted.’”

Watching the Big Air competition on Tuesday, when Gu grabbed the gold-medal spot by landing a soaring four-and-a-half-rotation jump she had never even tried in practice before, Peng may have been reminded of Mao Zedong’s declaration in 1949 that, “Women hold up half the sky.”

It was an iconic line, but the fact remains that the Chinese Communist Party is still ruled by men, just as much as it was in Chairman Mao’s day. In fact, as the exiled artist Ai Weiwei put it in a Guardian interview ahead of the Beijing Games, there never was any Peng Shuai mystery. “She is in the very safe hands of the Communist party. They will make sure she behaves exactly according to the party,” he said. “She may already be thinking she made a mistake in exposing this very deep, dark relationship... She has become another person, and whatever she tells you is not true.”

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