Tennis star Peng Shuai says her accusation against former Chinese party leader was a ‘huge misunderstanding’

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai says there has been a “huge misunderstanding” over a post in which she made a sexual assault accusation against a former Chinese party leader.

In her first interview with a Western media outlet, she again denied accusing anyone of sexual assault.

After the post last year was removed, she wasn’t seen in public for a few weeks, sparking alarm for her welfare.

L’Equipe, who spoke to her, had to submit questions in advance.

Many have continued to express fears that Ms Peng may be censored by state authorities.

But in the L’Equipe interview conducted on Sunday at the Winter Olympics, Ms Peng said she was living a normal life. Chinese state officials have said the same thing.

She expressed thanks for the concern directed towards her but said: “I would like to know: why such concern?… I never said anyone sexually assaulted me”.

On 2 November, Ms Peng had published a 1,600-word essay on Chinese social platform Weibo where she accused former Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her to have sex with him.

The post was shared widely on Chinese social media before it was removed less than an hour after publication.

The WTA has led calls for the allegations in the statement to be investigated.

But Ms Peng in recent months has denied making an accusation of sexual assault at all. She first said this to a Chinese-language Singaporean newspaper in December.

In the latest interview, she repeated the denial. “This post has given rise to a huge misunderstanding from the outside world. I hope that the meaning of this post will no longer be twisted. And I also hope that we don’t add more hype to this,” she said.

She also added that she had deleted the post herself because she “wanted to”. She also did not elaborate on how the post had been misunderstood.

This latest interview was granted to the French newspaper following permission from the Chinese Olympic Committee, whose representative also sat in on the hotel room meeting. The paper had to submit questions prior to the interview but said it was able to ask more on the day.

During the interview, the 36-year-old also indicated that she was unlikely to return to the professional tennis circuit.

“Considering my age, my multiple surgeries and the pandemic that forced me to stop for so long, I believe it will be very difficult to regain my physical level,” she told L’Equipe.

The IOC on Monday also reported that the Chinese athlete had had dinner with president Thomas Bach in Beijing on Saturday, a follow-up meeting for the pair.

Mr Bach had been one of the first authorities to vouch for Peng’s welfare after he held a video call with her during the period of concern about her treatment by state authorities.

The IOC has been criticised by some rights groups for failing to address China’s human rights record in the lead up to and amid the Winter Games.