When Peng Shuai arrived for her interview with the French sports newspaper L’Équipe on 6 February, she was not alone. The Chinese tennis star was accompanied by a senior official from the country’s Olympic committee, who not only sat alongside her for the hour-long encounter, but translated her answers, even though Peng speaks English, to questions that had been submitted in advance.
During the interview, Peng attempted to dismiss the allegations she made in a social media post on 2 November 2021, when she accused China’s former vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, of forcing her to have sex with him. The post had caused an “enormous misunderstanding”, she said, insisting that she had never accused anyone of sexual assault, even though that was exactly what she had done. Her words amounted to a plea to forget she had ever said anything.
Peng claimed she had never been missing, despite disappearing from public view for several weeks. Her fellow players were so concerned that they started a #WhereIsPengShuai campaign on social media. She had just been too busy to reply to all the messages she received, she said, and an IT glitch had prevented her from being able to communicate with her colleagues at the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). She had an answer for everything, it seemed, except the one question that wasn’t asked: why she had written the post in the first place.
A spokesperson for the International Olympic Committee, whose president, Thomas Bach, had dinner with Peng in Beijing on 5 February, said it wasn’t up to them to judge whether the athlete, who is a three-time Olympian, was speaking under duress. But the WTA’s chairman Steve Simon said the interview “does not alleviate any of our concerns”, and that they would continue to call for an independent investigation into Peng’s allegations.
The prospects of that investigation ever happening are remote.
Zhang, who is 75, served alongside Xi Jinping in the top ranks of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) until he retired in 2018. As one of the country’s most senior officials, he led the steering committee in charge of the bid for the Beijing Winter Olympics and oversaw the initial preparations for the games. Chinese state media reports show him meeting Bach in 2016 and promising a “green, shared, open and uncorrupted games”.
But with those games now under way, Zhang is nowhere to be seen. As Peng is shepherded through carefully controlled public appearances and interviews that are clearly intended to undermine her original allegations, the man she accused of assaulting her has not had to answer a single question, in public at least. There are no cameras outside Zhang’s house and no expectations that he should have to answer for himself. Instead, Chinese officials have dismissed the case as “malicious hyping” and demanded an end to the “politicisation” of the issue.
It’s not surprising that the political leadership is closing ranks around one of its own. The CCP is run by an authoritarian patriarchy. There has never been a woman on the politburo standing committee, the party’s top decision-making body, where Zhang and Xi both served. As Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, wrote recently, female representation in Chinese politics has actually declined over the past decade. Of the 204 members of the party’s central committee in 2022, only ten are women. Sexism is also rampant. Chinese media frequently refers to young female officials as “pretty lady cadres”, with all the gendered and sexualised connotations that confers, according to a study for the website ChinaFile.
In her latest interview, Peng was careful to stress that she was “nothing special”, just a “completely ordinary tennis player”. But that isn’t true. Peng is a former two-time Grand Slam doubles champion, and one of China’s best-known athletes. But her case now sends an unfortunate message: if someone as famous and powerful as Peng wasn’t believed, what hope is there for anyone else?