By Yan Bennett and John Garrick – Chinese tennis star, Peng Shuai's apparent disappearance may have ended with a smattering of public events, which were carefully curated by state-run media and circulated in online clips. But many questions remain about the three weeks in which she was missing, and concerns linger over her well-being.
Peng, a former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion, had been out of the public eye since Nov. 2. 2021 when she penned a since-deleted social-media post accusing former Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual misconduct.
In the U.S. and Europe, such moments of courage from high-profile women have built momentum to out perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault and give a voice to those wronged. But in the political context of today’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) – a country that tightly controls political narratives within and outside its borders – something else happened. Peng was seemingly silenced; her #MeToo allegation was censored almost as soon as it was made.
As scholars of Chinese legal culture who have watched as the nation has become increasingly repressive under the premiership of Xi Jinping, we believe the mysterious disappearance – and brief reappearance – of Peng should be viewed within a broader socio-legal context. The episode shows that when presented with a potential pivotal #MeToo moment, Beijing is prepared to violate its legal principles and respond with a state-media controlled operation aimed to chill any challenge to CCP authority.
Claim of a sexual assault
Peng’s Nov. 2 post on Weibo, the popular Chinese social media platform, reads like an open letter to Zhang, a retired but still powerful member of China’s Communist Party elite.
In it, the tennis star alleges coercion, duress and sexual assault. Peng wrote to the 75-year-old Zhang: “Why did you have to come back to me, took me to your home to force me to have sex with you? … I couldn’t describe how disgusted I was, and how many times I asked myself am I still a human? I feel like a walking corpse.”
The post was quickly taken down and Peng disappeared. But it sparked widespread international outrage. Current and former athletes expressed concern over Peng’s safety, including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams. The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai started trending.
Chinese state media responded by publishing a message purportedly from Peng, stating that “everything is fine.” But it was met with deep skepticism across the international community. Even with her reemergence at public events, concerns over her safety remain.
Behind the saga, however, is a clear message: It is dangerous to publicly criticize even a former senior Chinese Communist Party official. The party does not want any American-style #MeToomovement in China, as it is hostile to any grassroots movements that challenge its authority.
Peng’s disappearance also shows how authoritarian instruments of control are triggered by politically sensitive matters that contradict Communist Party narratives.
Such control of any sensitive narrative in China is commonplace with the CCP. Just ask Jack Ma, the former head of Alibaba, or movie star Fan Bingbing. Ma, who was the richest man in China and a worldwide celebrity, criticized the Chinese financial industry. This criticism led to his quick disappearance from public view. Thereafter, his ANT Group IPO was squashed and assets disassembled and appropriated by government controlled entities. Fan also disappeared from public view and eventually resurfaced, only to be fined for tax evasion. It appeared that the Communist Party considered her conduct may have had a corrupting influence on socialist values with displays of wealth and glamour out of sync with Xi’s revival of Maoist concepts such as “common prosperity.”
In Peng’s case, her story directly contradicted the Communist Party’s official narrative of harmonious relations between people and Party. In particular, her allegations contradict the narrative that women, who purportedly hold up half the sky in China, enjoy gender equality under this government.
Peng, for challenging this view, was given a taste of being canceled from China’s history and stripped of her rights under the Chinese constitution to seek justice in relation to her serious allegations. Indeed, the Chinese government has a history of unjustly detaining people involved in contentious cases, limiting their capacity to talk freely, and forcing statements.
Under Xi, China enjoys a self-described “socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics,” in which “the citizens basic rights are respected and guaranteed.”
But the response to Peng, amongst others, shows that rule of law has become a ruthless, blunt force instrument wielded by party leadership.
As Ca Xia, former professor at the Central Party School of the CCP, argued in June 2021: “the regime has degenerated further into a political oligarchy bent on holding on to power through brutality and ruthlessness [and] has grown ever more repressive and dictatorial.”
Cai continued: “A personality cult now surrounds Xi, who has tightened the Party’s grip on ideology and eliminated what little space there was for political speech and civil society.”
In Peng’s case, her “being disappeared” appears to be an attempt to kill several birds with one arrow: crush dissent, stem any Chinese #MeToo momentum and instill fear about criticizing CCP officials because, as the vanguard of the Communist Party under Xi Jinping Thought, they must always be seen as virtuous. In short, “Xi Jinping Thought” is a set of policies and ideas taken from the various writings and speeches of General Secretary Xi.
‘Fight to the end’
Peng’s allegations came at a particularly sensitive time for the CCP. It came just as Xi was preparing to deliver a historical resolution aimed at further cementing his grip on power.
“The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has entered a key phase, and risks and challenges we face are conspicuously increasing,” Xi remarked, while vowing to “fight to the end” with any forces that attempt to subvert the party’s leadership.
“Any forces” apparently includes anyone who criticizes or challenges the Communist Party – even one of its own international sports stars making serious allegations against a former party official.
(*) Yan Bennett, Assistant Director for the Paul and Marcia Wythes Center on Contemporary China, Princeton University;