Tennis star accuses Chinese ruling party official of #MeToo abuse

The Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has apparently accused a former vice-premier of sexual assault, engulfing the highest echelons of Beijing’s ruling Communist party in a #MeToo scandal for the first time.

Authorities scrambled to stop the allegations from spreading, with online censors even appearing to block the word “tennis”.

In a now-deleted post on one of her social media accounts, Peng, 35, said she and Zhang Gaoli, 75, had an on-off extramarital “relationship” over several years, which she said he tried to keep secret. Peng said Zhang had stopped contacting her after he rose in the ranks of the Communist party, and that at one point he expressed concern that she might tape their encounters.

About three years ago, she wrote, Zhang invited her to play tennis with him and his wife and then sexually assaulted her in his house. “I never consented that afternoon, crying all the time,” she wrote.

Peng’s post on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site similar to Twitter, was not visible on Wednesday, suggesting it may have been deleted, and the Guardian was unable to confirm its authenticity.

Zhang Gaoli
From 2013-18, Zhang Gaoli was one of seven members of the elite Politburo Standing Committee, headed by China’s leader, Xi Jinping. Photograph: How Hwee Young/EPA

From 2013 to 2018, Zhang was one of just seven members of the elite Politburo Standing Committee, headed by China’s leader, Xi Jinping. He has not commented on the allegations and the Guardian cannot independently verify them.

In her post, the former top-ranked player acknowledged she would be unable to produce evidence to back up the accusations but said she was determined to voice them. “Like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you,” said Peng, who became No 1 in the 2014 Women’s Tennis Association doubles rankings.

Within hours after the post appeared on Tuesday night, China’s “Great Firewall” appeared to have gone up. Searches for Peng’s name, and in some cases the word “tennis”, seemed to have been blocked by China’s notoriously effective censors. Peng’s Weibo account was hidden from searches and users were unable to comment on her posts.

In China, authorities have charged government officials with sexual misconduct in the past, often in conjunction with corruption investigations. However, such accusations have never been publicly disclosed against someone in such a senior political position as Zhang.

The country’s #MeToo movement has gathered pace in recent years, and the arrest in August of one of China’s biggest pop stars, Kris Wu, on rape allegations had raised hopes that authorities were finally addressing allegations. Wu has denied the claims.

Zhou Xiaoxuan, who became the face of the domestic #MeToo movement in 2018 after accusing a state-run television host of groping and forcibly kissing her, wrote online that she was sympathetic towards Peng.

“I hope she’s safe and sound,” she wrote.

Popularly known as Xianzi, Zhou lost her legal case in October, although she is credited with encouraging women to go public with their accounts. The man she accused, Zhu Jun, has sued her for slander.

Lü Pin, a US-based Chinese activist who founded the online forum, Feminist Voices, praised Peng on Twitter. She warned people not to dismiss the “tangled and chaotic” post in which the tennis player expresses “a lot of shame and self-blame”.

“I fully sense the humiliation and anger in her heart.”

The Guardian

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