China sexual harassment controversy | International

Shock in China as tennis star accuses top leader of sexual abuse

Peng Shuai and Zhang Gaoli  

Top Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s allegations of a sexual assault and subsequent years-long affair with a senior Communist Party of China leader and former Vice Premier has triggered intense debate in China as well as a massive effort by the authorities to censor it.

In a late night post on Tuesday on her official account on Sina Weibo, the Twitter equivalent used in China, Ms. Peng, a household name in the country, a former world number one in doubles, and winner of two grand slams, revealed in an emotional message how she was sexually assaulted by Zhang Gaoli, then the Communist Party boss in Tianjin, 10 years ago when she was 25 years old.

Watch | What happened to Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai?

Ms. Peng said she had been invited home by Mr. Zhang, who was 65 at the time, and his wife, and his wife had stood guard by the door when the attack happened, which left her in shock and in tears.

She said the two then began an intermittent affair, until Mr. Zhang was in 2012 promoted to the highest echelons of power in China as the seventh-ranked member of the Politburo Standing Committee that came to power that year, led by Xi Jinping. Mr. Zhang, she said, resumed the affair after his retirement in 2018.

Neither Chinese authorities nor Mr. Zhang have as yet responded to Ms. Peng’s statement.

She said in the message she had no evidence for her claims, but added she was determined to tell the truth. “For someone of your standing Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli, you have said you are not afraid,” she said, “but even if it is only me like an egg hitting a rock or moth going to the flame seeking self-destruction I will tell the truth about you.”

Ms. Peng’s are the latest of a series of sexual misconduct allegations that have targeted men in power in China, who rights activists say have gotten away with impunity for their actions for years. Despite numerous people speaking out since 2018, China’s “Me Too” movement has largely been stifled by the authorities, who have, as in Ms. Peng’s case, scrubbed out information and restricted information about cases that have come up, usually through social media posts, against prominent personalities in universities, the media and major companies.

This is, however, the first allegation made against the highest levels of the party leadership. The Politburo Standing Committee, which Mr. Zhang served on for five years, is the ruling party’s highest body. While the conduct of senior party officials is hardly shocking to many Chinese, with numerous officials in the past who were purged for corruption routinely accused by party authorities of carrying on sexual relations with many mistresses, what is unprecedented about Ms. Peng’s case is that both figures are household names in China and Mr. Zhang occupied one of the country’s highest offices. The sensitivity of Ms. Peng’s allegations against a former senior official brought even tighter censorship restrictions than the usual. On Wednesday, Ms. Peng’s name could not be searched for on Weibo while people were barred from posting information about the case on WeChat. Her original post was deleted but screenshots were shared by users. Those were later deleted too.

Significant and rare

Teng Biao, a lawyer and legal rights activist previously based in Beijing who is now in the U.S., observed how significant and rare it was for anyone to speak out about top officials.

“Former vice premier, Politburo Standing [Committee] member Zhang Gaoli, allegedly raped tennis star Peng Shuai. Based on what Peng has written, it's not an affair. It is rape,” he said on Twitter. “Top Communist Party leaders have unlimited power in China. [It is] extremely rare a victim dares to disclose their scandals.”

Lu Pin, a Chinese feminist activist who is editor of Feminist Voices, saluted Ms. Peng’s courage in speaking out and said the latest case underlined the continuing relevance of the “Me Too” movement in China.

“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,” she said on Twitter. “Imagine their excessive abuse of power being so authentically identified under the witness of so many people. Why does everyone know that Peng Shuai’s revelation is too real?”

She said “every victim bravely stood up, awakened people irreversibly, and demonstrated and encouraged the next victim to stand up and shake society more and more powerfully.” “Me Too has challenged the normalcy of society, about what can be said, about what it is not right,” she said.

Starting in 2018, numerous Chinese women spoke out against instances of sexual misconduct, from college students speaking out about their professors to an employee at tech giant Alibaba. In September, a court in Beijing ruled against Zhou Xiaoxuan in the first “Me Too” case that went to court after a three-year trial. Ms. Zhou had accused a well-known host working for the State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) of sexually harassing her at their workplace.


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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 7:19:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/shock-in-china-as-tennis-star-accuses-top-leader-of-sexual-abuse/article37329564.ece

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