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Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai denies she made assault accusation in video questioned by supporters

The Women's Tennis Association said it remained concerned for Peng after she appeared to retract her sexual abuse claim against a former top Chinese official.
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/ Source: Reuters

BEIJING — Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai on Sunday appeared to retract her allegation that a former top Chinese official sexually assaulted her in a video that was greeted with skepticism by supporters who assert that she is acting under government pressure.

Peng's well-being became a matter of concern among the global tennis community and rights groups when she appeared to allege last month that a former Chinese vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her in the past. After that post, she was absent from public view for nearly three weeks.

In the video posted by Lianhe Zaobao, a Singapore media outlet, Peng said she had never accused anyone of sexually assaulting her. NBC News cannot verify statements in the impromptu interview, and it is unclear how freely she felt she could speak.

IMAGE: Peng Shuai
Peng Shuai at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne on Jan. 21, 2020.Andy Brownbill / AP

Peng's remarks Sunday marked the first time she had addressed the matter on camera in public. She spoke on the sidelines of a cross-country skiing event in Shanghai.

She said her post on Weibo, a Twitter-like social media site, which was quickly removed, was a "private matter."

Peng, 35, said in the video that "people have many misunderstandings" about her Weibo post. She did not elaborate.

She also said she had been living at home in Beijing without supervision. In the video, she was not asked about Zhang and did not mention him.

Reuters has been unable to reach Peng since her Weibo post.

The Women's Tennis Association, or WTA, which early this month said it would suspend tournaments in China immediately because of concerns over the treatment of Peng and the safety of other players, continued to call for an investigation.

"It was again good to see Peng Shuai in a public setting and we certainly hope she is doing well," the WTA, which is based in Florida, said in a statement.

"As we have consistently stated, these appearances do not alleviate or address the WTA’s significant concerns about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion," the WTA said. "We remain steadfast in our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern."

China has not directly commented on Peng's initial post. It said after the WTA's move to suspend tournaments in China that it "opposes the politicization of sports."

Zhang has not commented on the matter.

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Discussion of the scandal, which emerged as Beijing prepares to stage the Winter Olympics in February, has been tightly censored in China.

On Sunday, Peng appeared on a fifth-floor viewing balcony with athletes in various sports, including former NBA star Yao Ming, and watched for about 20 minutes, the Singapore newspaper said.

Peng, a three-time Olympian, wore a black jacket with a Chinese flag and a red T-shirt bearing the characters for China.

Previously, Peng had been seen in photos appearing at a tennis tournament in Beijing and in a video having dinner at a restaurant that was posted on Twitter by a state media editor.

A China researcher at Human Rights Watch, Yaqiu Wang, tweeted sarcastically about the interview: "Wow, so natural, very real, everyone now believes it. Congratulations, the CCP!" The CCP is China's ruling Communist Party.

Peng said in the video posted Sunday that she personally wrote a letter last month to WTA head Steve Simon denying the allegation of assault and that an English translation of it by Chinese state media was accurate.

Simon said at the time that he "had a hard time believing" that Peng had actually written the email or that he believed what had been attributed to her.