A journalist who interviewed Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has said, despite her assurances to the contrary, he isn’t convinced she is free to say and do what she wants.
Marc Ventouillac and a colleague from French sports daily L’Equipe spoke to the player this week in a restrictive interview arranged with Chinese Olympic officials.
Speaking in English, Mr Ventouillac said he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t an act, adding: “It’s impossible to say. This interview don’t [sic] give proof that there is no problem with Peng Shuai.”
“It’s a part of communication, propaganda, from the Chinese Olympic Committee,” Ventouillac said on Tuesday, the day after L’Equipe published its exclusive interview.
By arranging for a big European newspaper to interview her, he said, they can show, “‘OK, there is no problem with Peng Shuai. See? Journalists [came], they can ask all the questions they wanted.'”
Peng, a three-time Olympian and former top-ranked doubles player, has been much in evidence in the Chinese capital, whether having dinner with International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach or watching events.
On Tuesday the pair took in American-born Chinese freestyle skier Eileen Gu’s gold in the women’s big air competition.
Her current visibility is in stark contrast to her disappearance after a lengthy Weibo post in November in which she accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier and member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, of forcing her to have sex despite repeated refusals.
She has since withdrawn the allegations, prompting many to believe she had been forced to do so.
Mr Ventouillac said it’s all about optics. He said: “It’s important, I think, for the Chinese Olympic Committee, for the Communist Party and for many people in China to try to show: ‘No, there is no Peng Shuai affair.'”
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which dropped tournaments in China following the allegations from Peng, said the interview “does not alleviate any of our concerns”.
Steve Simon, the WTA’s chief executive, said in a statement: “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 for the WTA to meet with Peng – privately – to discuss her situation.”
The journalist said the interview, for which they submitted questions in advance, was scheduled to last 30 minutes, but went on nearly twice as long.