A French sports journalist who interviewed tennis star Peng Shuai in Beijing on Sunday told CNN that his impression was that Peng was “cautious” when he asked about the sexual assault allegations she made against a retired Communist Party leader.
Marc Ventouillac, a senior reporter for L’Equipe, and his two colleagues sat down for an hour-long interview with Peng a day after she had a dinner with IOC President Thomas Bach. Both meetings were inside the Olympics “closed loop” in Beijing.
Peng had posted the allegations on Chinese social media site Weibo on November 2, in a post that was later deleted. In the interview, she told Ventouillac that the controversy around the incident was an “enormous misunderstanding.”
There were six people present at the interview, including Wang Kan, the chief of staff of the Chinese Olympic Committee, who also translated the interview.
There were three members of L’Equipe staff at the interview, and also a young woman Ventouillac thought was an Olympics volunteer. The newspaper had their own translation done from Chinese to French later.
He said they had to submit a list of questions in advance, and they were required to publish the story as a Q&A, instead of a piece with analysis and quotes. But they were also able to ask as many follow-up questions in the room as they wanted, and he didn’t feel that the interview was curtailed.
“I didn’t feel during the interview any censorship,” Ventouillac said, adding that Peng seemed relaxed and was “laughing” when speaking about sports.
But he said that her demeanor changed when they moved onto the topic of the alleged sexual assault.
“Then, at one moment, we began to speak about the affair, and at this moment, my feeling is, and it was the feeling of my colleague Sophie, was that we saw on her face, in her eyes, that she was very cautious about the question, what we said, what we asked her, and about her answer.”
Ventouillac said that as Peng understands English, he thought she was getting the sense of their questions, even though they were being translated into Chinese, a language that his team don’t speak. She was also wearing a mask, so all of her facial expressions weren’t visible.
Ventouillac added that Peng’s answers on the sexual assault questions were “very short.”
“I asked, ‘Why your post on Weibo was deleted so early?’ and she said, ‘Because I decided, I did it myself, to delete the post.’ So then I asked, ‘Why? Why delete Weibo posts?’ ‘Because I’ve decided.’ Short questions, short answers.”
Ventouillac said they had been pursuing the interview since mid-January. He said they asked the IOC the best way to request an interview, and they were directed to the Chinese Olympic Committee, which arranged the interview.
He said that they predicted that Peng’s answers would remain the same as from previous reports, but he felt it was important for an independent journalist to see her in person to check she was OK.
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