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Peng Shuai | Breaking the silence

The Chinese tennis star has accused a senior party leader of sexual assault

November 06, 2021 10:22 pm | Updated November 28, 2021 11:21 am IST

For more than a decade, 35-year-old Peng Shuai has been a household name in China.

Ms. Peng is today arguably one of the country’s most well-known tennis players of all time, perhaps dwarfed in the fame stakes only by Li Na, the former world number two and winner of two singles Grand Slams.

Ms. Peng became a national icon for her exploits in doubles, becoming the most decorated Chinese athlete in that format. Partnering with Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-wei, Ms. Peng’s two Grand Slam wins, at Wimbledon in 2013 and at the French Open the following year, were widely celebrated in her home country. (Her compatriots Zheng Jie and Yan Zi have also won two doubles slams.)


Despite all her success on court, Ms. Peng maintained a very low profile off it. Which is why the revelations of this past week shocked her country — at least, until the ruling Communist Party of China’s censors began working overtime to delete every morsel of information related to Ms. Peng. On the night of November 2, Ms. Peng sent out a message on Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like social media site used in China, saying she had been sexually assaulted by senior Party leader and former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli. In an emotional post, she detailed how 10 years ago, when she was 25, Mr. Zhang, then 65, and his wife, had invited her home before he assaulted her. She then narrated how they had subsequently begun a years-long affair, until Mr. Zhang broke it off when he was promoted to the party’s top body in 2012, the Politburo Standing Committee. He resumed the affair three years ago, when, Ms. Peng said, he again forced her to have sex, while his wife was guarding the door.

‘I will tell the truth’

She said in the message she had no evidence for her claims, but added she was determined to tell the truth. “Even if it is only me, like an egg dashing against a rock or a moth towards the flame seeking self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you.” Her note was censored half an hour after it was published, but by the following day, it had become a huge talking point regardless of a mammoth censorship effort that blocked all searches of Ms. Peng’s name (even searches for “tennis” were, for a while, blocked). As the China Digital Times noted, the post was “only shared 1,000 times in the 34 minutes that it was uncensored, but after it was deleted, it was searched for 6,749,000 times”. Screenshots were shared by Internet users. When those were blocked, inverted screenshots were posted to evade censors.

Born in the south-central province of Hunan, Ms. Peng rose quickly up the ranks of China’s youth tennis circuit. Aged 18, she qualified for the U.S. Open for the first time. The following year, she made her first WTA Tour semi-final in an event in Sydney.

In 2011, the year she said she first met Mr. Zhang, Ms. Peng reached a career high world rank of 14 in women’s singles. Three years later came her biggest breakthrough, winning the doubles in Wimbledon with Ms. Hsieh from Taiwan, with whom she struck up a successful partnership, winning the French Open the following year. (Ms. Peng would also team up occasionally with India’s Sania Mirza. In 2018 came the lowest point in her career when she faced a ban for attempting to dump her Wimbledon partner at the 11th hour to team up with Ms. Mirza. She was accused of breaching anti-corruption rules and “using coercion” by offering money to her already registered partner.)

Lu Pin, a Chinese feminist activist who is editor of Feminist Voices , observed on Twitter that Ms. Peng’s revelations this week had struck a chord among many young women, an all-too-familiar tale of exploitation by men in power who usually got away with doing so. “Why do people find Peng’s story so real?” she wrote. “Because everyone knows that it must be true. Officials have…always exploited women, but hidden in the dark.”

As Ms. Lu notes, if Ms. Peng was not explicitly connected with the “Me Too” movement, her decision to speak out will “create a ripple effect” and “powerfully shake up many others in society”. This is why the authorities have already sought to silence her. After speaking out, Ms. Peng, who has a large list of sponsors and endorsements in China, now faces an uncertain fate. She is believed to still be in Beijing.

Days after her note, Huang Xueqin, a women’s rights campaigner and journalist at the forefront of China's ‘Me Too’ movement who was detained earlier this year, was formally charged with “inciting subversion” against the state for her activism.

“This is not about an affair, it is violence,” Ms. Lu observed. “It shows a system that normalises violence and sometimes makes actions seem voluntary. It is truly heartbreaking to see that, Peng Shuai, a most outstanding and independent Chinese woman, still has this experience. A lesson for us is rights do not come with your career or economic status. Rights come with us fighting for them.”

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