Tennis star Peng Shuai’s #MeToo claim against retd vice-premier rocks China

Peng Shuai, 35, a former Chinese world number one in doubles tennis, has accused former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, 75, of coercing her into having sex and subsequently continuing an on-and-off secret relationship with her for years.
A Chinese flag flutters at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Peng Shuai, a former Chinese world number one in doubles tennis, has accused former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, of coercing her into having sex and subsequently continuing an on-and-off secret relationship with her for years. (REUTERS)
A Chinese flag flutters at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Peng Shuai, a former Chinese world number one in doubles tennis, has accused former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, of coercing her into having sex and subsequently continuing an on-and-off secret relationship with her for years. (REUTERS)
Updated on Nov 03, 2021 05:12 PM IST
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BySutirtho Patranobis I Edited by Amit Chanda

A #MeToo allegation against a retired top Communist Party of China (CPC) official has sparked an online firestorm and swift censorship in China. Peng Shuai, 35, a former Chinese world number one in doubles tennis, has accused former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, 75, of coercing her into having sex and subsequently continuing an on-and-off secret relationship with her for years.

Peng’s allegations against Zhang, made in an emotional post on China’s Twitter-like Weibo on Tuesday night, is the first #MeToo allegation against a top CPC leader.

Zhang Gaoli, the vice-premier, was among the seven members of the CPC Politburo Standing Committee, the highest decision-making body in China, between 2013 and 2018, under President Xi Jinping.

Peng’s post, published at 10pm on Tuesday, was swiftly deleted but not before netizens had taken screenshots and shared it across social media platforms.

Any search related to the topic including Peng’s name and the word “tennis” was banned from Weibo late on Tuesday night.

The swift censorship indicated the level of sensitivity that the Chinese government attaches to any discussion on the top leadership’s alleged misdemeanours even if it involves retired leaders.

Peng’s accusations made in Mandarin could not be corroborated.

Neither Peng nor Zhang have made any public comments following the former’s Weibo post.

The Chinese foreign ministry declined to comment when asked for a response on Peng’s allegations and the censorship.“I have never heard and this is not a diplomatic question,” foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Wednesday.

Peng, who has played with and against Indian tennis star, Sania Mirza, has won the women’s doubles at both Wimbledon and French Open.

In her post, that goes back and forth in time, Peng said she had sexual relations with Zhang when he was the top party official of Tianjin, a city some 100km from Beijing, between 2007 and 2012.

She said he had first assaulted her after inviting her to play tennis with him and his wife.

“I never consented that afternoon, crying all the time,” she wrote, not specifying when exactly the assault occurred, according to a translation of the post by the New York Times.

Peng wrote that after that he was promoted to the Standing Committee in 2013 and during his tenure as a member of the party leadership, Zhang did not contact her.

But after he retired in 2018, he contacted her and their relations resumed though his wife knew about it.

Peng was invited by Zhang to his home at a time when his wife was present and was forced into a sexual relationship, the post says. Subsequently, they could often meet in secret and spend time with each other.

The post suggests Zhang tried to end the relationship with Peng on Tuesday while saying he was afraid of leaving evidence such as recordings.

“I feel like a walking corpse, pretending, pretending every day, which I am the real me? I shouldn’t have come to this world, but I don’t have the courage to die. I really want to live simply, but it backfired,” she wrote.

“I know that for someone of your eminence, vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid,” Peng wrote in her post as per the NYT translation, “but even if it’s just me, like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you.”

Lu Pin, the founder of the now-banned Chinese online forum Feminist Voices, wrote on her Twitter handle why Peng’s post was important.

“Peng Shuai’s revelation is very important. It allows people to see the real-life of China’s top leaders as never before. Behind the power-wrapped morality, their excessive abuse of power, corruption…” Lu wrote.

“First of all, she has a lot of shame and self-blame, and she even talks about ‘love’. After all, everyone is poisoned by patriarchy. But the important thing is that, like other victims, she knows from the bottom that all that is unjust and that she is being bullied, even if there is no ready-made term to define what happened to her,” Lu added.

“China’s quickly-stifled #MeToo movement has ensnared academics, journalists, NGO workers…but never had a high-level party official been accused. The burden of proof and the political pressure brought to bear will be huge. And Peng herself admits to having no evidence,” SupChina, a New York-based China-focused website reported.

“So quickly are social media posts being censored on Chinese sites about this that people are resorting to using #tennis and #melon (meaning drama) in Chinese to talk about this…both terms are trending on Weibo now,” the SupChina report said.

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