Peng Shuai, arguably China’s biggest tennis star, sent shockwaves through the world earlier this month when she accused Zhang Gaoli, a senior Chinese government official, of sexual abuse. Reportedly, she has been missing since then.
Though the Chinese authorities claim that Shaui is well and have even published an email attributed to her, the international community, especially the tennis fraternity, has expressed their doubts and concerns. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has even warned of serious consequences for China, if the tennis star’s well-being is not confirmed soon.
In an unprecedented reveal on November 2, 35-year-old Shuai posted on Weibo, a social media site, that Gaoli, now 75, coerced her into sex when she was in her 20s and later had an on-off traumatic consensual relationship with her for years. Gaoli was China’s Vice-Premier, second-in-command, between 2013 and 2018. He was also a part of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body, from 2012 to 2017.
Apparently, such incidents of high-ranking Communist Party officials abusing their power are quite common in China. The country’s patriarchal culture further complicates the matters as those in positions of power often solicit sexual favours from women.
Yet, most of such cases are kept under tight wraps with the reputation of the officials involved safeguarded at all costs. So, this first-of-its-kind accusation in China has caught global attention as Shuai herself is well known. Declared the world’s number one doubles player in 2014, Shuai is the first Chinese player to achieve a top ranking after winning the doubles titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014. The three-time Olympian has represented China at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, London in 2012, and Beijing in 2008.
In fact, this is the highest profile case in China’s #MeToo movement, which has been severely restricted in the country.
In her post addressed to Gaoli, which was deleted within half-an-hour of its publication, Shuai stated that after forcing her to have sex a decade earlier, Gaoli, a married man, coerced her into having an years-long affair with him. He then suddenly ghosted her, after which she decided to put her story online. She further said that she could not provide any evidence to support her claims and that she was aware that she was inviting trouble for herself.
“I know that for someone of your status, Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid. 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,” she wrote.
The censors in China deleted not just the post but all relevant keywords and links to online discussions about the issue. But the damage had been done by then. Screenshots of Shuai’s post started doing rounds on private chat groups and other social media sites. A Weibo timescale function showed that a Shuai name hashtag, which was mentioned just a few times earlier, attracted over 20 million views after she posted her letter.
Most English-language media reported the story within the context of the #MeToo movement although Shuai herself never mentioned the movement in her post. Cases of sexual harassment and assault, though rampant in China, were not publicly discussed until a #MeToo movement began in 2018. At the time, a Beijing college student had accused a professor of sexual harassment but soon the campaign spread to other industries, including media and non-governmental organizations.
Yet, amid an atmosphere of heavy censorship and with high-ranking Chinese officials’ private lives zealously guarded, it has come as a surprise to many that Shaui’s post was allowed to be online for as long as it was. The timing of the post, just ahead of an upcoming gathering of the top Communist Party members, the sixth plenary session of its 19th Central Committee, also raised many eyebrows. Sceptics, such as prominent Chinese dissident Cai Xia who now lives in the US, claim that Shaui’s post was intentionally allowed to be online for just enough time for the scandal to spread as Chinese President Xi Jinping targets his rivals and dissidents.
Xia taught at the Central Party School of the Communist Party for 15 years before she was fired in 2020 for calling Jinping a “mafia boss”. Another dissident, who goes by the Twitter name “Sumerian” and is also based in the US, echoed the sentiment, linking Shaui’s allegation to the plenary session. “Obviously, this is a sex scandal under the instruction of Xi. Or else the Weibo post could not survive for that long,” Sumerian stated.
Gaoli was once a close ally of Jinping but many wonder whether the relationship has now soured. If recent speculation is to be believed, a paranoid Jinping has been avoiding travelling to foreign countries as he fears his rivals in the party may launch a coup against him.
Meanwhile, Shaui’s disappearance has drawn severe condemnation from various quarters, especially other international tennis stars, including Japanese champion Naomi Osaka, world number one tennis player Novak Djokovic, French player Nicholas Mahut and tennis star Serena Williams. “I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent,” Williams wrote on Twitter.
More worrisome is the WTA’s stand on the issue. WTA head Steve Simon has officially said that he is willing to lose hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business in China, if Shuai is not found and her allegations are not properly investigated. “I think everybody fully understands what’s at stake here on many different fronts as we’re going through it. I think we’re certainly, from players to board to council, fully united that the only acceptable approach is that of doing what is right,” Simon stated.
In the 2019 season, China hosted nine international tennis tournaments, including the elite WTA Finals, which had a total prize money worth of $30.4mn. The event was cancelled in 2020 and moved to Mexico this year due to Covid-19 pandemic-related complications. But it is set to return to Shenzhen in China in 2022 and the city is supposed to host the event every year till 2030. But now all this may be in jeopardy as so far the Chinese authorities have refused to officially acknowledge Shaui’s allegations.
Human rights group Amnesty International has also backed Simon’s demands and the International Tennis Federation has stated that it supports a probe into Shaui’s whereabouts.
In the latest update to the sordid saga, the Chinese state-run outlet CGTN published a screenshot of what it claims to be an email written by Shuai. In the email, Shaui reportedly stated that her accusations of sexual abuse were “not true” and that she was “resting at home and everything is fine”. Then the state media released brief videos in which the tennis player could be seen attending a tournament as a guest in Beijing and with her coach and friends at a restaurant.
However, she has still not made any direct contact with the WTA or any other foreign organization. With the WTA expressing concerns that the videos may have been staged or even edited in a misleading manner, this tale of power and its abuse seems far from over.