Content Warning: mentions of sexual assault
On November 2nd, 2021, prominent Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai accused former Vice Primer Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault in a post on Weibo, one of China’s biggest social media platforms. Weibo is one of the few social media platforms permitted in China, while Western sites like Facebook are banned for not complying with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s strict censorship rules.
Peng Shuai is a 35-year-old professional Chinese tennis player who once ranked 1st in the world in women’s doubles. She is also the first Chinese national to achieve a top ranking in the sport after winning the doubles titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014. As for Zhang Gaoli, the 75-year-old was China’s Vice Premier from 2013 to 2018 and used to sit on the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee, making him one of the most powerful Chinese officials behind Xi Jinping during his tenure. Peng Shuai’s accusations have drawn international parallels to the #MeToo movement.
In her post (a full translation is available on Reddit), Peng explained that she had an occasional extramarital relationship with the former Vice Premier, which was consensual and kept secret over several years. Once he was promoted to the Standing Committee, Zhang stopped communicating with the athlete. However, the official invited her to play tennis with him and his wife around three years ago. Peng alleges that he sexually assaulted her in his house that same afternoon, leaving her in tears.
The post disappeared merely 20 minutes after having been published. It was unclear whether Peng deleted it or if Chinese censors removed it. However, the inability of Weibo users to search for the post and related comments in the following days left little doubt regarding the involvement of state censorship. According to media outlets like The Guardian, comments on Peng’s profile seemed to be disabled. People attempting to find the original post got an error message claiming that “the content contained information that violates relevant laws and regulations.” The state also censored the word “tennis,” preventing users from discussing matters related to the sport.
Peng then vanished from the public sphere. Feminist activists and fellow athletes soon began posting about Peng’s censored allegations and subsequent disappearance. They called for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), the organizing body responsible for women’s professional tennis worldwide, to investigate the matter. The WTA responded to the calls and released a statement inquiring about Peng’s whereabouts and well-being on November 14th. Faced with mounting pressure from fans, athletes, and the WTA, the China Global Television Network (CGTN)—a Chinese state-owned media organization—released an email supposedly written by Peng reassuring the international community about her situation on November 17th.
Unconvinced by the staged proof of her well-being, WTA Chairman Steve Simon dismissed the statement shared by Chinese state media, finding it suspicious. While the WTA received confirmation that Peng was safe from multiple sources including the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA), the WTA itself could not reach the athlete directly. Simon called for “independent and verifiable proof that Peng Shuai is safe and that her sexual assault allegation will be investigated fully, fairly and without censorship.” He even went as far as to threaten to pull the WTA out of China—an unusually bold move for an organization that gets millions of dollars from the Chinese market. The United Nations Human Rights Office also echoed Simon’s call for an investigation.
Then, on November 19th, CGTN journalist Shen Shiwei shared three photos of Peng apparently enjoying time off at home. On the same day, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) continued to deny knowledge of Peng’s situation and told reporters that “the matter was not a diplomatic question.” Finally, on November 20th, Shen also posted several videos showing the athlete enjoying a family meal and attending a youth tennis tournament in Beijing. On November 21st, after previously refusing to comment, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) released a statement. Meant to reassure the international sports community about Peng’s wellbeing, the statement was accompanied by a picture of a video call between the IOC’s President Thomas Bach and the athlete.
However, rather than alleviating concerns, the IOC’s unexpected intervention—which echoed the lines of Chinese state media and did nothing to address Peng’s allegations—has caused many to question whether the IOC is instead bowing to Beijing’s attempt to silence the athlete. Shortly after the statement’s release, the WTA claimed it did not alleviate its concerns about Peng. Advocacy groups like Global Athlete and Human Rights Watch also accused the IOC of being complicit in the athlete’s censoring and disappearance.
As questions continued after the call, the Chinese MFA raised its voice and called for the end to the “malicious hyping” of Peng’s controversy. Then, on December 1st, the WTA officially announced it was suspending all its tournaments in China for 2022 in support of Peng. “The WTA will do everything possible to protect its players. As we do so, I hope leaders around the world will continue to speak out so justice can be done for Peng, and all women, no matter the financial ramifications,” stressed Simon.
Peng’s story has stirred up a lot of online chatter in China about censorship and sexual assault, creating an uncomfortable situation for the CCP. However, to fully grasp the significance of the situation, one must understand the trajectory of China’s #MeToo movement, China’s increasingly authoritarian domestic politics, and the role of sports in international politics.
China’s #MeToo Movement
China’s homegrown #MeToo movement took flight in mid-2018, shortly after the broader movement gained traction in the public sphere across North America and Europe. China’s #MeToo phenomenon achieved significant visibility inside the country and initially succeeded in enacting change in Chinese society. This included the notable achievement of having sexual harassment defined within the civil code for the first time. However, as the movement developed and grew popular on Chinese social media, authorities increasingly censored feminist activists and sexual assault survivors. This state intervention effectively prevents it from transforming into a movement that could create broader demands for social change.
These measures are largely due to the CCP’s hostility towards any grassroots movement that could challenge its authority, especially those that target senior officials like Zhang. The CCP often portrays this type of activism as “tools of foreign interference”—a term used to discredit the expressed grievances as attacks by China’s enemies. Counter-activists have also ramped up their efforts against women’s rights in 2021; this includes activity from nationalist and pro-government influencers praised by Chinese state media and supported by state authorities. Specifically, in the case of Peng, her disappearance is meant to simultaneously discourage ordinary Chinese citizens from criticizing CCP officials and silence China’s #MeToo movement.
Contradicting the Narrative
In addition to clamping down on any challenge to its authority, the CCP also censors and detains any actor that contradicts the political narrative it tries to impose on Chinese society. The CCP’s official rhetoric stresses Chinese society’s gender equity and harmonious relations between the Party and the Chinese people—both of which are undermined by Peng’s allegations. It is worth noting that the CCP never shied away from using extra-legal forms of detentions, disappearances, censorship, torture, and forced confessions to target activists.
However, the scope and frequency of these measures have increased in recent years under an evermore powerful Xi Jinping. Under his leadership, China’s domestic politics have taken a turn towards an even more intense form of authoritarianism defined by a strict adherence to party ideology and intolerance towards dissent. The example of Jack Ma, who openly criticized the Chinese state’s handling of the country’s financial industry, leading authorities to target his newest business venture in 2020, is a case in point.
Peng’s case triggered a particularly swift response from the CCP partly due to the sensitive timing of her allegations; it came at a moment when Xi was preparing to unveil a historic resolution at the Party’s sixth plenum, which took place from November 8th to November 11th. The resolution cemented his role as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong and rewrote Chinese history to suit Xi’s agenda for the country moving forward. As an athlete, Peng is also seen as an actor with a powerful voice, both within China and abroad. State media celebrate successful Chinese athletes, and the CCP uses their victories to show how its leadership makes the country strong. Therefore, the Party is extremely cautious not to let athletes use their public image to undermine its credibility and chosen narrative.
Sport and International Politics
Sport helped bring China and the West closer in the 1970s through the episode of “ping pong diplomacy.” This now-famous event saw the United States and China develop diplomatic relations in the middle of the Cold War due to a chance encounter between American and Chinese ping-pong athletes at a world championship in Japan. China’s split and subsequent isolation from the Soviet bloc was a major factor in its desire to develop a relationship with the United States.
However, the international political dynamics of sports interactions with China have changed significantly in recent years. The Chinese state is now well connected to the world economy and is no longer isolated. This allows the CCP to use the access to its sizable domestic market to force sports organizations to remain silent on issues it deems part of its “internal affairs.” A notable example is the National Basketball Association (NBA) apologizing to Chinese authorities after Houston Rockets’ manager Daryl Morey posted a statement favouring Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters in 2019. This situation led two major Chinese broadcasters to stop showing Rockets games in China.
The IOC’s intervention also follows that pattern given the timing of Peng’s allegations, which are being publicized just months before the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Moreover, critics have noted that around 90% of the IOC’s income is generated from sponsors and selling broadcasting rights for the Olympic Games, creating a strong incentive to conform to the Chinese authorities’ will. Peng’s case also sets a chilling precedent ahead of the Games for athletes who might be tempted to use their voice to criticize China’s recent human rights record. In particular, this could impact any mention of Hong Kong and Xinjiang—two issues that have prompted discussions of boycotting the Games altogether in some countries.
This Time It’s Different
However, this time around, the implicit threat of cutting off non-compliant organizations from its domestic market does not seem to be working for Chinese authorities. The WTA’s advocacy in favour of Peng and its decision to pull its tournaments from China unless more is done—a first for a sports organization—signals a readiness from the international business community to make a stand against authoritarianism in China. The flurry of media attention around Peng’s case also forced Chinese state media on the defensive, essentially sending the CCP’s propaganda apparatus into damage control mode to stem the flow of questions concerning Peng.
One can only hope that moving forward and towards the 2022 Winter Olympics, the world will not remain silent in the face of the CCP’s abuses. And indeed, it looks like it hasn’t; the Five Eyes intelligence alliance members—the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom—all announced that they would not send diplomatic representation to the Games in Beijing. Motivated mostly by human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, the decision to engage in a “diplomatic” boycott—short of preventing athletes from attending—was surely spurred in part by Peng’s case and the strong reaction from the international public.
In international relations language, the events triggered by Peng’s allegations reinforce what is referred to as a “constructivist” view of inter-state relations. Constructivist theory assumes that, beyond merely considering material power when interacting with one another, states also have to observe a set of rules and norms. Activists and everyday people then have the opportunity to influence the behaviour of powerful states like China and the United States by creating norms.
This paradigm has been in the making for decades on matters related to human rights: states should not be allowed to violate human rights, regardless of if they have the power to do so. Thanks to Peng Shuai’s courage to speak up, the CCP’s abuses are one step closer to being addressed.