Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accuses a former high-level government official of sexual assault

On Tuesday night, details of a post from Chinese female tennis star Peng Shuai were circulating on Chinese social media. In the post, Peng accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier in China, of sexually assaulting her. The post and relevant keywords quickly disappeared on Weibo. Some observers think the reason why the force of oppression is stronger than before is that the case involves a high-level former government official.

Details of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s post circulated on Weibo on Tuesday night, and in it, she accused former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her on a few occasions. Soon after the post was reportedly shared, it was removed from Weibo and relevant content was also deleted. The authenticity of the post by Peng was unverifiable.

Peng claimed that she had sexual relations with Zhang more than a decade ago, but after Zhang became a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, he stopped contact with Peng. She also revealed that after Zhang retired three years ago, he invited Peng to play tennis with him and his wife one day in Beijing, and they took her home afterward.

Once they arrived at his house, he took her to a room and asked her to have sex with him again. Peng said someone was guarding the door outside. “I didn’t agree to have sex [with you] that afternoon and I couldn’t stop crying,” she wrote. “I had dinner with you and your wife, and after dinner, I still didn’t agree to have sex. Then you said you hated me and told me that you had never forgotten about me over the last seven years. You said you would treat me well. I eventually agreed based on my feeling for you from seven years ago, which was filled with fear and anxiety. Yes, we had sex.”

Peng also said Zhang originally said they would talk about it at his house, but when she tried to call him on the day, he claimed that he was caught up by something and he would contact her another day. “You were always afraid that I would bring a recorder and leave some evidence,” she wrote. “Yes, I didn’t have any evidence, no audio recordings, no video recordings, but only my real experience which is now twisted.”

At the end of her post, Peng said even though she knew Zhang once said he wasn’t afraid of these things being revealed, and even though she knew doing so would be like “an egg hitting a rock, moths to the fire or self-destruction,” she still wanted to reveal the facts about what happened between her and Zhang.

After her post was removed from Weibo, there were only some posts about her birthdays and other posts from the year 2019 under her account. The platform seems to have disabled the “comment” function and when users try to type in keywords like “Peng Shuai” or “Zhang Gaoli,” nothing related to her allegations show up.

Peng is originally from China’s Hunan Province but she has long played for the Tianjin tennis team. She has won two grand slam doubles titles with Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-Wei and was ranked as high as number one in the world in women’s doubles. On the other hand, Zhang was one of the members of the 18th Politburo Standing Committee and later became China’s vice premier. Before that, he worked as the party secretary in Tianjin between 2007 and 2012.

Feminist activists: the Communist Party didn’t want people to talk about it

Yaqiu Wang, the China researcher at Human Rights Watch, points out that while sexual harassment is quite common in China, victims often won’t be dare to reveal the name of their oppressors. Since the incident involves a high-level official like Zhang, the case sent shockwaves across China.

“While other MeToo cases in China have also been suppressed, the force of suppression is definitely not as strong as this one,” she said. “I think since this case involves such a high-level official, it is why the force of suppression is so strong.”

Lu Pin, a prominent Chinese feminist activist, says many people are concerned about Peng’s situation, but she thinks Peng shows bravery by speaking up about the assault even when she knows the level of risks and dangers involved. “Many women in China can relate to Peng’s experience because if she is able to reveal what Zhang Gaoli did to her, it shows that sexual assault is not right and it shouldn’t be left in the dark,” she said. “It is a very important message to the victims.”

Lu thinks that even though the Chinese government tries very hard to censor details related to the scandal, she thinks the public won’t forget it, as the messages from the incident are too important to the Chinese civil society. “The message from this incident is too important to people, so no matter what, they won’t stop disseminating relevant information,” she said. “In this case, the censorship regime fails.”

However, Wang Yaqiu thinks it won’t be hard for the Chinese government to force Peng to deny her own allegations in public since they have forced many prominent dissidents to plead guilty in the forced confession videos. “They can use all kinds of ways to cover up this case,” she said.

Lu thinks that Peng’s account is highly consistent with the experiences of other victims of the MeToo movement in China. She also believes that the government censorship and repression that Peng has been subjected to may have a chilling effect on Chinese society, but it will also have an exemplary effect.

“The reason why so many people in China keep talking about the MeToo movement is that they think sexual assault should be talked about and that it’s not right,” she said. “All the victims are paying the price by sending these two messages to the public. The victims are scared, but they are always scared, but on the other hand, they could be encouraged. That’s important because, in China, fear is the norm.”

This piece is first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.