Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star whose account of sexual coercion by a former Communist Party leader sparked weeks of tension and galvanized calls to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics, has denied her claim she had been sexually assaulted by the official.
Ms. Peng made the comments in an interview published by a Singaporean newspaper on Sunday. But the retraction seemed unlikely to extinguish concerns about her well-being and suspicions that she had been the target of well-honed lobbying techniques and a propaganda campaign by Chinese authorities.
Controversy erupted last month when Ms. Peng wrote in an article on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, that she had an intermittent, multi-year relationship with Zhang Gaoli, now 75, vice -Premium retired Chinese minister. She said that when meeting with him about three years ago, she “never consented” and that she “cried all the time”.
She then abruptly disappeared from public view, and global concern for her fate increased. In a written statement later, she appeared to seek to withdraw the charge, and the Women’s Tennis Association and other professional players rallied to her side, saying they believed her statement was written under official duress. .
The tennis association suspended matches in China while seeking to establish independent contact with Ms. Peng. Last week, leaders of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee criticized the way China has handled Ms Peng’s case.
In the interview with Lianhe Zaobao, a Singaporean Chinese-language newspaper, Ms. Peng, 35, said, “First of all, I want to stress a very important point: I have never said or written that someone sexually assaulted me.
“Maybe there was some misunderstanding on everyone’s part,” she said of her first Weibo post.
Ms. Peng also denied being under house arrest or being forced to give statements against her will.
“Why would anyone watch over me?” ” she said. “I have always been very free.
Her denial sparked skepticism from human rights activists, who said Chinese authorities appeared to have dragged her into repeated video appearances.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said on twitter that Ms. Peng’s latest statement “only heightened concerns about the pressure the Chinese government is putting her”.
Last month, video clips of her at a restaurant in Beijing were posted on the Twitter account of the editor of the Global Times, an influential newspaper run by the Communist Party. The editor described them as showing Ms. Peng having dinner with her trainer and friends. She also appeared in live video calls with the president of the International Olympic Committee and other organizational officials.
Chinese authorities are likely to use Ms. Peng’s latest video-recorded statement to push back calls for a full investigation into her allegations and to oppose the suspension of the tennis association’s matches in China.
The one-minute interview with Ms. Peng, which took place during a ski competition in Shanghai, left many key questions unanswered and unanswered.
She was not directly questioned about her relationship with Mr. Zhang, who was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest body of the Communist Party. He was also not asked how his understanding of the sexual assault matched his earlier description of what happened with Mr. Zhang.
Understanding the disappearance of Peng Shuai
Where is Peng Shuai? The Chinese tennis star has disappeared from public view for weeks after accusing a top Chinese leader of sexual assault. Recent videos that appear to show Ms. Peng haven’t done much to address concerns about her safety.
Ms. Peng was one of China’s top-ranked tennis players, reaching first in doubles in 2014 and 14th in singles. His Weibo account in early November of his relationship with Mr. Zhang lasted 20 minutes before Chinese censors wiped it out. But the news quickly spread online.
Since then, the Women’s Tennis Association and other organizations have urged the Chinese authorities to ensure Ms. Peng’s safety and give her a chance to freely relate what happened with Mr. Zhang.
The interview released on Sunday came after the international arm of Chinese state broadcaster, China Global Television Network, published an English-language email on behalf of Peng in November. In it, she denies the sexual assault charges and asks to be left alone.
But Steve Simon, executive director of the Women’s Tennis Association, and many human rights activists have expressed doubts about its authenticity. After this latest interview, a spokesperson for the association said that she still had not been able to establish independent contact with Ms. Peng.
In the interview, Ms. Peng appeared to try to dispel these doubts. She said that she wrote a statement in Chinese along the same lines “entirely of my own accord” and then someone helped her translate it into English.
There was no mention of Ms. Peng’s latest comments in Chinese state media, which operates inside a censorship wall.