The reporter who conducted the first face-to-face interview with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai by western media has said he is unsure if she is free to say and do what she wants.
Peng’s allegations of forced sex with a former top-ranked Communist Party official, and subsequent disappearance from view, triggered a global outpouring of fear for her safety.
Marc Ventouillac is one of two journalists for French sports daily L’Equipe who spoke to Peng this week in a restrictive interview arranged with Chinese Olympic officials.
He said: “This interview don’t give proof that there is no problem with Peng Shuai.
“It’s a part of communication, propaganda, from the Chinese Olympic Committee.
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.'”
The interview, as well as a dinner Peng had with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, and appearances she made at Olympic venues have shone a deliberate and controlled spotlight on the three-time Olympian and former top-ranked doubles player.
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 professional tennis tour said the interview “does not alleviate any of our concerns” about the allegations she made in November.
“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, organised through China’s 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.
“She answered our questions without hesitating — with, I imagine, answers that she knew. She knew what she was going to say,” Ventouillac said.
“But you can’t know whether it was formatted or something. She said what we expected her to say.”
“We started by asking questions about tennis because that’s her domain, her field. It’s not controversial. It helped her relax, unwind,” he said.
“We then got to the questions about the ‘Peng Shuai affair’ itself and there, my sense from her looks — and my colleague Sophie had about the same impression — was that she was being more attentive, becoming more nervous.
A raised eyebrow. A squint. So she was being careful with the questions and also, I think, careful with her responses.”