Yes, he talked to Peng Shuai. But French journalist still isn’t sure she’s OK

Peng Shuai watching an event at the 2020 Olympics
Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai watches the women’s freestyle skiing big air finals at the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

It was the interview many sports journalists wanted: A sit-down with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, prepped and ready to talk for the first time with Western media about her allegations of forced sex with a former top-ranked Communist Party official, which triggered a global outpouring of fears for her safety.

Marc Ventouillac, one of two journalists for French sports daily L’Equipe who spoke to Peng this week in an interview arranged and totally controlled by Chinese Olympic officials, says he remains unsure whether she is free to say and do what she wants.

“It’s impossible to say,” Ventouillac said. “This interview [doesn’t] give proof that there is no problem with Peng Shuai.”


China’s intent, however, was clear to him: By granting the interview as Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics, it appeared that Chinese officials hoped to put the controversy to rest so that it doesn’t overshadow the event.

“It’s a part of communication, propaganda, from the Chinese Olympic Committee,” Ventouillac told the Associated Press on Tuesday, the day after L’Equipe published its exclusive interview.

With “an interview to a big European newspaper, they can show: ‘OK, there is no problem with Peng Shuai. See? Journalists [came], they can ask all the questions they wanted.’”

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The interview, as well as a dinner Peng had with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and her appearances at Olympic venues, shone a deliberate and controlled spotlight on the three-time Olympian and former top-ranked doubles player. On Tuesday, Peng sat with Bach and watched U.S.-born Chinese freestyle skier Eileen Gu win gold at the women’s big air event.

Ostensibly, the aim is to put to rest the question that fellow players and fans around the world have been posting online: Where is Peng Shuai?

“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,’” Ventouillac said.


The Women’s Tennis Assn. said the interview “does not alleviate any of our concerns” about the explosive allegations Peng made on Chinese social media in November, in a post that quickly got deleted.

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“Peng took a bold step in publicly coming forth with the accusation that she was sexually assaulted by a senior Chinese government leader,” 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.”

Ventouillac said Peng “seems to be healthy.” To secure the interview, organized through the Chinese Olympic Committee with help from the IOC, L’Equipe agreed to send questions in advance and publish her responses verbatim in question-and-answer form. Originally allotted a half-hour, Ventouillac said they ended up getting nearly double that and asked all the questions they wanted, beyond the “8 or 10” they pre-submitted.

“There was no censorship in the questions,” he said.

A Chinese Olympic Committee official sat in on the discussion, translating Peng’s comments from Chinese. The newspaper then used an interpreter in Paris to ensure the accuracy of the comments that it published in French on Monday. It was her first sit-down discussion with non-Chinese-language media since her accusations in November.

Women’s Tennis Assn. CEO Steve Simon has pulled his organization’s events out of China in response to the controversy surrounding tennis player Peng Shuai.

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Ventouillac said one of L’Equipe’s aims for the interview was to show Peng face-to-face that “she is not alone” and that people around the world are concerned about her.

He believes that international support has helped protect her during the controversy. Someone not so well-known outside China likely would be in jail for such an allegation against a senior official, Ventouillac said.


In her lengthy now-deleted post, Peng wrote that Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier and member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, forced her to have sex despite her repeated refusals. The post, on her verified Weibo account, also said that they had had sex once seven years ago and that she developed romantic feelings for him after that. Zhang has not commented on the accusation.

“Originally, I buried all this in my heart,” she wrote. “Why would you even come find me again, take me to your house and force me and you to have sexual relations?”

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The post was quickly scrubbed from her account. Peng told L’Equipe that she erased it but didn’t give her reasons beyond saying: “Because I wanted to.”

She also said the post has been misunderstood.

“Sexual assault? I never said that anyone made me submit to a sexual assault,” the newspaper quoted her as saying.

“This post resulted in an enormous misunderstanding from the outside world,” she also said. “My wish is that the meaning of this post no longer be skewed.”