Was Tennis Star Peng Caught up in Xi’s Power Politics?

was tennis star peng caught up in xis power politics scaled
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Photo from NY Post

There is more than meets the eye to the affair surrounding the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who disappeared after accusing a former top Chinese official of raping her. After a huge international flap, she has reappeared, telling the International Olympic Committee she is safe and sound.

Although the affair has garnered worldwide attention, with the World Tennis Association threatening to cancel 10 WTA tournaments in China and lose 25 percent of its revenues, which amount to more than US$1 billion, it may be deeply enmeshed in Chinese power politics, with Xi Jinping using it to discredit Peng’s #Me too-identified former lover Zhang Gaoli, who is affiliated with the Shanghai Gang headed by Jiang Zemin.

The story began on November 2, when Peng posted allegations on the Chinese social platform Weibo that she had sexual relations for more than a decade with Zhang, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee.

Relations, she wrote, were sometimes consensual but sometimes Zhang forced her to have sex. Her Weibo post alleged that 75-year-old Zhang, who is 40 years older than she is, did so with the knowledge of his wife Kang Jie who apparently did nothing to oppose it.

The post was taken down 20 minutes later by Chinese state censors, who may have realized belatedly that it was going international and all mention of her was scrubbed. Even the word tennis was blocked for domestic users temporarily. Nonetheless, her allegations against Zhang had already spread to international media which played up her claims. So far, the Chinese government has not officially denied her allegations nor announced it was investigating their veracity.

After her Weibo post, Peng disappeared from public view, which sparked international speculation on whether she had been detained or suffered a worse fate. On November 19, the United Nations and White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki both called for proof of her whereabouts. The UN Human Rights Office called for a transparent investigation into the former Grand Slam doubles champion’s claims.

On the same day, the WTA sent a letter to Qin Gang, the Chinese ambassador to the US, expressing deep worries about her health and safety. A photo of Peng with the caption, “Where is Peng Shuai,” went viral on Twitter, tweeted by international tennis stars like Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. The WTA threat to cancel its China tournaments stands in sharp contrast to the National Basketball Association, the International Olympic Committee, and the internet giants Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Apple, which have all bent to Beijing’s orders at various times.

In response to the international outcry, Hu Xijin, chief editor of the Global Times, a hawkish, nationalistic Chinese state-owned newspaper, repeatedly tweeted photographs and videos of Peng in an attempt to show the world she is living normally.

In one, he tweeted a video of a smiling Peng greeting Chinese sports fans. On November 20, Hu retweeted another photograph of a smiling Peng. The original tweet was by a Chinese man, Shen Shiwei, who describes himself on Twitter as affiliated with Chinese state media, a fellow on North and South Korea, and a “Chinese overseas stakes analyst.”

What is enigmatic about the photograph is that it shows Peng posing with a Winnie the Pooh doll. It is widely known in China and the international community that Winnie the Pooh is a nickname for Xi Jinping. Normally, no Chinese would post dare such references. So why would there be a photograph of Peng with Winnie the Pooh while she is in China?

Were these photographs and videos of Peng genuine or staged? How did Chinese state media officials like Hu and Shen get access to such apparently personal photographs and videos of Peng? Did she voluntarily give them to these state apparatchiks? While state apologists like Hu claim Peng is alive and well, why did she take so long to speak for herself?

So far, state media editors like Hu and the Chinese government have not provided satisfactory answers.

There are two possibilities regarding the Peng affair. One is that she made the allegations purely spontaneously due to outrage at being sexually abused, in line with the #Me Too movement. But as a Chinese national living in mainland China, she must be aware of the possible repercussions of making such serious allegations against a former senior official like Zhang.

Why would she dare to post such serious allegations on Weibo, which is heavily monitored and censored by the Chinese state, unless she felt safe doing so? If she felt safe making such serious allegations, that leads to the next possibility.

The other possibility is Peng’s allegations are part of the power struggle between Xi and his political rivals including Jiang. Under this scenario, Xi is protecting Peng and using her as a weapon against Jiang by embarrassing Zhang, who belongs to Jiang’s camp, which is also known as the “Shanghai faction.” As Asia Sentinel reported on October 2 along with other media, the Shanghai gang is seeking to depose Xi.

One factor which makes this explanation plausible is that Peng’s allegations were made on November 2, just days before the Sixth Plenum which took place in Beijing – and three years after the alleged affair ended – from November 8 to 11. The Sixth Plenum passed a “historic resolution” which strengthened Xi’s power, as a further step to his gaining a third term sometime next year. Jiang’s camp opposes a further term for Xi, as it would break the two-term limit on Chinese presidents set by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. By embarrassing Jiang’s protégé Zhang on the international stage, it would make it easier for Xi to strengthen his power at the Sixth Plenum.

The speed with which Peng’s allegations traveled through international media despite being deleted by Chinese state media in just 20 minutes raises the question of whether Xi’s forces facilitated their spread.

Despite the huge international attention on Peng, the allegations against Zhang are probably aimed more at the domestic audience than the international stasge, because Zhang, unlike Xi, is hardly known outside China, having been a quiet, reticent official to the point of appearing colorless.

At a Chinese Foreign Ministry press conference in Beijing on November 3, when asked about Peng’s case, Chinese Foreign Ministry Wang Wenbin replied that he had “not heard of this issue, and it is not a diplomatic question.” On November 19, when asked about Peng again, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian replied the matter “was not a diplomatic question and I’m not aware of the situation.”

The response of these two Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesmen is unusual, given the expressions of concern from the WTA, the White House, and the UN. Normally, when international accusations are leveled against China or senior Chinese officials, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespeople would fiercely deny the accusations and come up with robust rebuttals. The evasive response of Wang and Zhao speaks volumes.

So are Peng’s allegations the spontaneous outburst of an outraged woman or part of the internecine power struggle in Beijing? If Zhang gets taken down for corruption, the answer will be the latter. In China, when officials are charged for corruption, often the charges include sexual impropriety.

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