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23 November 2021

Why tennis star Peng Shuai’s #MeToo allegation is such a threat to China’s leaders

Her accusation exposes systemic sexism and threatens the Communist Party’s legitimacy, Chinese feminists say.

By Jessie Lau

“I know you’ve said you’re not afraid, as someone of your prominent status,” wrote Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai in her explosive #MeToo post on 2 November, accusing China’s former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. “But even if it means being like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth flying into a flame, I’ll tell the truth about what happened between us.”

Peng’s allegation – in which the 35-year-old accused Zhang, now in his 70s, of sexually assaulting her – marks the first time China’s #MeToo movement has reached the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

It’s the most significant case of its kind since #MeToo took off in 2018, becoming what activists call the biggest political movement in China in recent years. By implicating a high-ranking former official and party member, the accusation exposes the sexism hidden away within the system and directly threatens the legitimacy of the party, Chinese feminists say.

“In China, extremely few people dare to challenge a senior politician in such a personal way,” Lijia Zhang, a London-based writer and feminist from China, told the New Statesman. “Of course, they saw Peng’s claim as a threat.”

In the weeks since the former top-ranked doubles player’s allegation went viral, China’s leaders have made it clear that they are indeed afraid. Through a series of heavy-handed moves, the state has been frantically trying to bury the high-profile case, which has sparked global outrage just ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022.

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Within hours of her post appearing on social media, Chinese censors had blocked all searches for and references to Peng. She vanished from sight for several weeks, sparking a global campaign under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai. Those voicing their concerns included tennis icons Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

The strong response from the tennis community and the mounting global pressure surrounding her story have made it almost impossible for authorities to cover up the case. When an email surfaced, purporting to be written in Peng’s voice, saying she was safe and describing the sexual assault allegation as “not true”, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) said that the message “only raises” concerns rather than allaying them. It threatened to cut lucrative ties with China and pull nearly a dozen events next year – worth tens of millions of dollars – unless Peng is proved to be safe.

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“Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation. Her allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship,” said Steve Simon, chairman and CEO of the WTA, in the statement.

Although Peng finally resurfaced over the weekend, her messaging still does not appear to be fully under her control. 

On Sunday, the International Olympic Committee issued a statement saying that its president Thomas Bach took a 30-minute video call with Peng, with the former tennis player reportedly saying she was “safe and well” and “would like to have her privacy respected at this time”. Images and videos of her attending a tennis tournament, eating at a restaurant and relaxing in her apartment were shared by various accounts associated with Chinese state-run media.

Yet many remain unconvinced. “The video makes things seem even more suspicious,” Li Maizi, a prominent Chinese feminist activist, told the New Statesman from Beijing. “I think everyone should be concerned about her safety. We need to keep paying attention to her case.”

A veteran campaigner on gender issues in China, Li was the subject of global headlines in 2015 when she and four others were detained just prior to International Women’s Day for attempting to hand out stickers protesting sexual harassment on public transport. They became known as China’s “Feminist Five”, and were released after an outpouring of global anger and international pressure.

For Li, Peng’s case is significant because it proves that #MeToo exists on every level of society in China. “It has the capability to shake up and transform things that regular people, through regular channels, would normally never even be able to touch,” she said. 

Compare the way the party handled Peng’s case with two other viral #MeToo cases. One concerned an employee of the online shopping giant Alibaba who accused her boss of sexual assault; the other was a woman that said pop star Kris Wu had assaulted her while she was drunk (at least 24 other women then came forward with similar allegations). The state used these cases as opportunities to crack down on perceived toxic work cultures at tech companies and excessive idolisation of celebrities by fans, shifting the public debate away from issues of sexual harassment and assault.

Despite the robust nature of China’s growing #MeToo movement and its widespread appeal among young people in particular, feminist activism is becoming increasingly challenging for campaigners. Not only is the space for activism shrinking, but so is the state’s tolerance for those raising awareness of gender inequality and other social issues.

Sophia Huang Xueqin, a #MeToo activist and journalist who is known for her work exposing sexual harassment in China, vanished after she was arrested on 19 September. She had been due to leave the country to pursue gender studies in the UK. In early November, news emerged that she is now officially detained under the charge of “inciting subversion of state power”. 

While Peng’s celebrity status offers her a degree of protection, activists say she is likely also detained or under house arrest, and unable to speak freely. “Her career may have been ruined,” Zhang added.

A friend of Huang’s, who declined to give their name over safety concerns, says they hope Peng’s case can help raise awareness of Huang’s detention, as well as continuing to fan the flames of China’s #MeToo movement.

“Both of them are very brave women,” the friend said. “We’re extremely worried because there’s no way to know their situation, to know what they have been subjected to. It’s clear that those who have the courage to stand up must shoulder a heavy burden. So it’s our responsibility to support them.”

In recent days, Peng’s allegation has invigorated a growing global campaign to boycott the Winter Olympics, now less than three months away, over Beijing’s human rights abuses in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. For now, despite the party’s efforts, her story is far from silenced.

[See also: Mary Gaitskill: “The definition of rape has changed a lot”]