Journo: My Interview With Peng Shuai Was 'Propaganda'

Marc Ventouillac says China let him talk to tennis star, but he has doubts that she's speaking freely
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 8, 2022 7:33 AM CST
Journalist Isn't So Sure All Is OK With Peng Shuai
China's Peng Shuai, right, watches the women's freestyle skiing big air finals with Thomas Bach, center, president of the International Olympic Committee, at the Winter Olympics on Tuesday in Beijing.   (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

(Newser) – 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 allegations she made of forced sex with a former top-ranked Communist Party official that 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 a restrictive interview arranged with Chinese Olympic officials, says he's still unsure if she's free to say and do what she wants. "It's impossible to say," he said in English. "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 is hosting the Winter Olympics, it appeared that Chinese officials hope to put the controversy to rest so it doesn't pollute the event.

The interview, 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. On Tuesday, Peng sat with Bach and watched American-born Chinese freestyle skier Eileen Gu win gold at the women's big air event. "It's a part of communication, propaganda, from the Chinese Olympic Committee," Ventouillac told the AP on Tuesday, the day after L'Equipe published its exclusive. 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.'"

Ventouillac did note that Peng "seems to be healthy." To secure the interview, organized 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 presubmitted. "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 accusation.

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 for 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 speculated. In a lengthy post in November, Peng had written 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 repeated refusals. The women's professional tennis tour has said Ventouillac's interview "does not alleviate any of our concerns" about the allegations Peng made in November, calling for an investigation and a chance to meet privately with her.

(Read more Peng Shuai stories.)

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