China called on Tuesday not to “politicize” and “blunt” the Peng Shuai case, a rare official reaction to accusations of “forced” sex made by the tennis player against a former senior regime official. The 35-year-old sportswoman, doubles champion at Roland Garros in 2014, had published in early November on the Chinese social network Weibo a long message on her relationship with the former Deputy Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli, 40 years her senior.
In this text in the form of an open letter, she spoke at length about her feelings towards the former leader, retired since 2018. She criticized him in particular for having forced her to have a sexual relationship three years ago. . Until now, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has refused to comment on the matter, saying it does not fall within the diplomatic sphere.
Asked again on Tuesday about the impact of the controversy on the image of China, a spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, however briefly reacted during a press briefing. “I think some need to stop deliberately blaming this issue for hostile ends, and especially making it a political issue,” he said.
The spokesperson did not specify who he was specifically targeting with his remarks. In addition to many stars of world tennis, from Chris Evert to Novak Djokovic, several Western countries, including France and the United States, have called on Beijing to shed light on the fate of Peng Shuai. After her post was censored in early November, the champion had not appeared publicly, which fueled concerns about her situation. Peng Shuai finally reappeared over the weekend at a Beijing restaurant and at a tennis tournament in the Chinese capital, according to videos released by official media. On Sunday, she also spoke by videoconference with Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
According to the IOC, Peng Shuai explained that she was “safe and sound at her home in Beijing but that she would like her privacy to be respected.” The WTA, the governing body of the professional women’s tennis circuit, was however skeptical. “It was good to see Peng Shuai in videos recently, but they do not alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about his well-being and his ability to communicate without censorship or coercion,” the WTA said on Monday. organization in a press release. “This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into his allegations of sexual assault. “
The WTA is threatening to remove China from its tournament circuit if Chinese authorities do not shed light on the player’s accusations. Puzzled after Thomas Bach’s videoconference with Peng Shuai, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) association accused the IOC of “active collaboration” with Beijing. “The IOC seems to place more importance on its relationship with a country that violates human rights than on the rights and safety of Olympic athletes,” the New York-based organization said in a statement.
In his message, Peng Shuai also evoked his feelings for Zhang Gaoli, their “personalities who stick well”, their “inexhaustible topics of discussion”, their games of table tennis or billiards. She also criticized him for having drawn her into a toxic romantic relationship, namely an uncomfortable cohabitation with his wife and a history hidden from the general public, the private life of the leaders being taboo in China. The two remained lovers until an argument a few days before the start of the affair, according to the message of the champion.
Zhang Gaoli, 75, was until early 2018 a permanent member of the CCP’s political bureau and as such one of the seven most powerful men in China. Most Chinese are not aware of the case, as it is censored in China in the media and on social networks.