Tennis, sex and politics come together in the Chinese #MeToo scandal

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BEIJING (AP) – The Chinese authorities have shut down virtually all online discussions of sexual assault allegations that appear to have been made by a Chinese professional tennis star against a former high-ranking government official, demonstrating how sensitive the ruling Communist Party is to such allegations reacted.

In a lengthy social media post that quickly disappeared, Peng Shuai wrote that Zhang Gaoli, a former deputy prime minister and member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, forced her to have sex despite repeated refuses after a round of tennis three years ago. Her post also said that she had sex seven years ago and had feelings for him afterwards.

Peng is a former top doubles player who has won 23 tour-level doubles, including Grand Slams at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.

The Associated Press failed to verify the authenticity of their post, which was released late Tuesday night from their verified account on Weibo, a leading Chinese social media platform. The post was removed shortly afterwards and a search on Weibo for Peng’s account now yields no result. Neither she nor Zhang were available for comment.

The allegation is the first against a prominent government official since the #MeToo movement entered China in 2018, before being largely contained by authorities that same year. Previous allegations have been limited to the media, interest groups, and academia.

The Communist Party’s response shows its determination to control public discourse and contain social movements that it cannot be sure of control. While social media has become ubiquitous in China, it remains firmly under the control of the parties.

Screenshots of the post circulated on Twitter, which is blocked in China, and enliven the discussion on this platform about the gender balance in China, where men dominate the highest levels in politics and business.

In the Post, Peng, 35, wrote that Zhang, now 75, and his wife wanted to play tennis in Beijing about three years ago and that he later took them to a room in his home where the attack took place.

“I was so scared that afternoon and never thought that something like this could happen,” the post said.

Rumors and overseas reports of affairs between younger women and senior officials have long been an integral part of Chinese politics, starting with the founder of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong.

In proceedings against current and former functionaries of the party leader and the decades-long anti-corruption campaign by President Xi Jinping, accusations of a “lascivious lifestyle” as well as bribery and abuse of their positions are also frequently brought up.

Zhang retired in 2018 and, as is common with former Chinese officials, has largely disappeared from public life.

Peng has not played in the top division since the Qatar Open in February 2020. In singles, she reached the semifinals of the US Open 2014 and the second round at the subsequent Australian Open, but did not make it through the third round at all major since Wimbledon in 2017.

The Communist Party is increasingly cracking down on civil society, including the #MeToo movement which has been trying to gain a foothold in the country.

Zhou Xiaoxuan, a former intern at the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, was nudged by bystanders in September when she went on trial against a well-known presenter.

Since then, the movement has largely been shut down by the authorities as activists found their online posts censored and pressured by the authorities to attempt to hold protests.

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Associate press writer Huizhong Wu in Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this report.


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