Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Tennis ball in net on flag China background.
Licensed via Adobe Stock

Peng Shuai Backtracks Her Accusations

This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows how China's propaganda works

On December 19, Peng Shuai was stopped by a journalist with Singaporean Chinese-language state-owned newspaper Lianhe Zaobao while she was in Shanghai for the International Ski Federation’s Cross-Country Skiing China City Tour. The Wall Street Journal reports that journalist Chen Qingqing, of the Chinese state media mouthpiece Global Timesposted a short video on Twitter of Peng with former NBA and CBA basketball player and current chairman of the China Basketball Association, Yao Ming hours before the Lianhe Zaobao interview was posted.

In the interview Peng said that she never said or wrote about anyone sexually assaulting her. The Wall Street Journal reports:

“There’s been a lot of misunderstanding,” Ms. Peng said in an interview, describing the situation as touching on “my personal privacy.”

“There shouldn’t be any distorted interpretations,” she said.


The tennis player, sporting a black down jacket and a red T-shirt emblazoned with the characters for China, also said to the reporter from Lianhe Zaobao that she had been living freely.

“Why would I be under surveillance? I’ve always been very free,” Ms. Peng said.

Sha Hua, “Chinese Tennis Star Peng Shuai Denies Making Sexual Assault Accusations” at the Wall 
Street Journal

A friend of mine provided her translation of Peng’s interview. At one point (around minute 2:27) Peng says, “This is an issue of my privacy, people have many misunderstandings…there is …distorted interpretation. . . about my letter.” The reporter then asks, “To the WTA?” Peng replies, “Yes, letter to WTA, Mr. Simon, it is written by me in Chinese, because my English is poor, I asked [CGNT] to translate it to English for me, the English translation contained the same meaning as the Chinese original.”

But China Digital Times notes that Peng speaks nearly fluent English, and this private matter was publicly posted on Weibo.

Analysts say that her words were very precise and she was likely coached in what to say. Peng denied saying or writing that anyone sexually assaulted her, and it is true that she did not use the Chinese characters for sexual assault, although those that have seen her Weibo post point out she said that her relationship with former vice premier Zhang Gaoli was sometimes non-consensual and coerced. Furthermore, Peng never denied writing the post, only that she did not say anyone sexually assaulted her.

The WTA Holds Its Ground

Few people are convinced of Peng’s safety or that she is acting of her own accord, including Women’s Tennis Association CEO and Chairman, Steve Simon. Prior to Peng’s most recent appearance, Simon questioned her safety after her calls with the International Olympic Committee chairman Thomas Bach and a published email to Simon in the China’s state-media, Global Times. Simon posted on the WTA website on December 3 in response to Peng’s comments to the IOC:

None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.

As a result, and with the full support of the WTA Board of Directors, I am announcing the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong. In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault. Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.

Steve Simon announces WTA’s decision to suspend tournaments in Chain

The latest video has done little to convince Simon or the WTA that Peng is okay. The WTA has reiterated its call for “a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault.”

An article in Sports Illustrated, published on December 17 before Peng’s most recent interview with Lianhe Zaobao, outlines the WTA and Simon’s history with China and the impetus behind his willingness to stand up to the Chinese government at great financial cost. 

In 2020, the WTA had to move its Finals tournament to Guadalajara, Mexico because they could not play in Shenzhen due to Covid-19 restrictions. This tournament ended up being a huge success and demonstrated that the organization could get along without having to play in China, where fan support for tennis was lackluster at best. 

See “Why Did the WTA Risk Everything for Peng Shuai?” at Sports Illustrated for the whole story. 

The WTA’s stance has implications for Beijing’s ability to leverage its economic prowess with other companies and organizations. Historian and director of SOAS China Institute in London, Steve Tsang, told The Wire China,

“If the WTA does persist and show that the costs it will pay are manageable and may even be compensated to an extent by rallying support from outside of China, it may get some businesses re-thinking the balance between their China-based businesses and their businesses outside of China.”

Katrina Northrop, “China’s Double Fault?” at The Wire China

Beijing’s Attempts to Control the Narrative Follow a Similar Pattern

An analysis by Paul Mozur, Muyi Xiao, and Gray Beltran of the New York Times and Jeff Kao of ProPublica that is available in both English and Chinese helps us see why people who are familiar with the CCP’s tactics are not surprised at Peng’s recent interview, or that a journalist released pictures of her and Yao Ming, one of the most recognizable Chinese athletes in the U.S. The CCP used the same tactics during the Hong Kong democracy protests in 2019, and to conceal the government’s negligence when Covid-19 was circulating in Wuhan in late 2019 and early 2020.

Mozur et al.’s outline of the CCP’s modus operandi can help us understand Peng’s situation. 

At home, remove all traces. Peng’s Weibo account has been sanitized and her name, “Zhang”, and “tennis” were unsearchable within China’s firewall. However, Chinese netizens have found clever ways around speaking on censored topics, such as supporting the “Women’s tableless ping pong association.” 

Abroad, say nothing until you can’t. Based on its sloppy response, the CCP may have been caught off-guard by the international response to the #WhereIsPengShuai campaign. China Digital Times editor Xiao Qiang told CNN

“China’s external propaganda on this matter is like a paper box that cannot hold water in front of its own people.


How ironic that they hope to use this narrative to convince the international community.”

Nectar Gan and Steve George, “Beijing is angry at the WTA for pulling out of China. But it can’t let Chinese people know about it” at CNN

China Media Project’s David Bandurski told CNN that he thinks the CCP’s response is one of desperation. “It’s very raucous. It’s very non-strategic. And I think in that sense, it’s incredibly foolish.”

Even after the recent interview, when the Wall Street Journal contacted representatives of China’s Foreign Ministry, they said they did not know anything about Peng’s allegations.

Provide visual proof. The ProPublica article has videos and Twitter posts from CGTN of what commentators describe as very scripted interactions. (See here.)

Tap a friendly foreigner. In this case the “friendly foreigner” was IOC president Thomas Bach, who has a vested interest in making sure the Winter Olympics in Beijing is a success.

Unleash an army of fake accounts. Ninety-seven fake accounts on Twitter promoted the Global Times’ posts about Peng Shuai. These accounts have been removed by Twitter. The posts and comments from these fake accounts are relatively unconvincing, but that isn’t the point. The point is to re-Tweet and engage posts that amplify the state’s messaging, which Twitter’s algorithms then prioritize.

Push a counternarrative. This counternarrative tends to portray China as the victim of Western imperialism. The messaging from the Chinese propaganda department was that the WTA was coercing Peng Shuai “to support the West’s attack on [the] Chinese system. They are depriving Peng Shuai’s freedom of expression…”

Make it us versus them. In China, the one Weibo post that was allowed to stay up for a time was of the French Embassy, which had urged China to “respect its commitment to protect women.” This was intentional on the part of the Chinese propaganda department:

It became an outlet for nationalist venting. Users lashed out at France, accusing the country of meddling in China’s affairs. One commenter leaned on whataboutism, pointing to recent reports of sexual abuse of minors by the clergy of France’s Roman Catholic Church.

Paul Mozure, Muyi Xiao, Gary Beltran, and Jeff Kao, “China Unleashed Its Propaganda Machine on Peng Shuai’s #MeToo Accusation. Her Story Still Got Out.” At ProPublica

Censors then vetted which comments they kept up and which ones they took down to make it look like it was the West versus China.

Peng’s situation is disturbing, particularly after these scripted videos. As Pin Ho, founder of Mirror Media Group told ProPublica and the New York Times, “If someone says they’re free, while they’re in the hands of a kidnapper, that is terrifying.” 

You might also be interested in:

#WhereIsPengShuai: China’s Star Tennis Player Went Missing. Peng re-appeared after two weeks, but her disappearance sparked a global outcry against human rights violations under the Chinese Communist Party. Other high-profile figures who have disappeared for a time include actress Zhao Wei and e-commerce tech entrepreneur Jack Ma, both high-power billionaires. (Heather Zeiger)

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

Peng Shuai Backtracks Her Accusations