China called on Tuesday not to “politicize” and not to “exaggerate” the case Peng Shuai, in an unusual official reaction to the accusations of “forced” sexual intercourse launched by the tennis player against a former head of the regime.
The 35-year-old athlete, doubles champion in Roland Garros In 2014, she posted a lengthy message on the Chinese social network Weibo in early November about her relationship with former Vice Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli, forty years her senior.
In that text with the format of an open letter, Shuai gave free rein to his feelings towards the former leader, retired since 2018. In the text, he especially reproached him for having forced her to have a sexual relationship three years ago.
Until now, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has rejected any comment on the case, stating that it did not concern the diplomatic field.
The IOC, now immersed in this new scandal, has also been widely criticized for allowing the Games to go ahead.
Asked again on Tuesday about the impact of the controversy on China’s image, a spokesman, Zhao Lijian, reacted briefly in a meeting with the press.
“I think some have to stop deliberately and malevolently exaggerating and politicizing this issue,” he said.
Zhao did not elaborate on who he was addressing with his claims.
Many world-renowned tennis players, from Chris Evert to Novak Djokovic, and several Western countries asked China to give details about the athlete’s whereabouts and her health.
Skepticism in the WTA
After the censorship of her message in early November, the champion had not reappeared publicly, which fueled concern about her situation.
Shuai finally reappeared last weekend at a restaurant in Beijing and at a tennis tournament in the Chinese capital, according to videos published by official media.
On Sunday he spoke by videoconference with the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, guaranteeing that he was “safe and sound”, but that he would like his private life “to be respected”.
However, the WTA, the body that runs the professional women’s tennis circuit, was skeptical.
“It was nice to see Peng Shuai in videos recently, but they do not mitigate or respond to the WTA’s concern regarding his well-being and his ability to communicate without censorship or coercion,” the organization said in a statement on Monday.
“This video does not change anything in our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into the allegations of sexual assault.”
The WTA threatens to withdraw China from the tournament circuit if the Chinese authorities do not shed light on the tennis player’s allegations.
Ping-pong and billiards
Puzzled after Thomas Bach’s video conference with Peng Shuai, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) association accused the IOC of “active collaboration” with Beijing.
“The IOC seems to attach more importance to its relationship with a country that violates human rights than to the rights and safety of Olympians,” the New York-based organization said in a statement.
In his message, Peng Shuai also evoked his feelings for Zhang Gaoli, his “complementary personalities”, his games of table tennis or billiards.
But she also reproached him for having led her into a toxic love affair, with an uncomfortable cohabitation with his wife and a story hidden from people, since the private lives of the leaders are taboo in China.
Both were lovers until a dispute a few days before the start of the case, according to the tennis player’s words.
Zhang Gaoli, 75, was until the beginning of 2018 a member of the permanent committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party, and therefore one of the seven officially most powerful men in the country.
Most Chinese are not aware of the case as it is censored in China’s media and social media.