Global City

Chinese Communist Party accused of censoring a star tennis player

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared from public view for 26 days after accusing former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault.

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The two-time Grand Slam Doubles Champion Peng Shuai went missing from public view after she wrote on China’s Twitter-equivalent platform, Weibo, that former vice premier Zhang Gaoli pressured her into having sex with him three years ago. The incident occurred after visiting his home, according to CNN.

Gaoli retired in 2017 after serving five years as the Vice Premier of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Politburo Standing Committee, the most senior decision-making body in the Chinese government.

Shuai wrote about the assault on China’s Twitter-equivalent platform Weibo on Nov 2. “Why did you have to come back to me, took me to your home to force me to have sex with you?” she wrote. “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. Every day I was acting, which person is the real me?”

The Weibo post was taken down by government censors, and the tennis star’s social media presence was scrubbed from the internet. Executive Director of the USC U.S.-China Institute Clayton Dube says China’s major social media spaces— like WeChat and Weibo— and search tools carry out directives, “aimed at managing public opinion.”

“At the top of the list is [the] monitoring of any posts about top leaders. The Communist Party insists that it alone can judge its leaders,” Dube said. “So Peng Shuai’s explosive charges about abuse at the hands of Zhang Gaoli didn’t survive long on the net.”

Dube said the party-state has sought to “tamp[er] down #MeToo discussions,” though internet users have been able at times to creatively circumvent censors.

“At one point, citizens turned to posting 米兔 characters, or emoji of rice + rabbit as a homonym for MeToo to get around the censorship,” he said. The censorship is how China’s ruling party keeps only favorable events in the public eye.

“The scrubbing of Peng Shuai, one of China’s most accomplished athletes, from social media is sad but not a surprise. We must hope that Peng is well and can decide for herself who to meet with and what to say. But that has not yet been established, " Dube said.

After international outcry over Shuai’s safety and wellbeing, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced on Nov. 28 that she took part in a 30-minute video call with IOC President Thomas Bach. In a Nov. 21 statement put out by the IOC, Shuai said she was “safe and well” at her home in Beijing.

“I was relieved to see that Peng Shuai was doing fine, which was our main concern,” IOC Athletes’ Commission Chair Emma Terho wrote in the statement. “She appeared to be relaxed. I offered her our support and to stay in touch at any time of her convenience, which she obviously appreciated.”

Professor of political science and expert in Chinese politics Stanley Rosen argues the CCP and government want to “completely censor” the story, but the reaction from the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has “greatly complicated their efforts.”

As a result of the CCP censorship, Steve Simon, Chairman and CEO of the WTA announced Dec. 1 WTA’s decision to suspend tournaments in China, citing Chinese leadership’s failure to address this “very serious issue in any credible way.”

Simon added that while the organization knows where Shuai is, he has “serious doubts” that she is “free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation.”

“We repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation – without censorship – into Peng Shuai’s sexual assault accusation,” he wrote.

Simon stood his ground on his decision to pull tournaments out of China, saying the WTA was founded on the basis of equality for women and that the organization would suffer an “immense setback” if it allowed powerful people to “suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug.”

“I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players,” Simon said.

Rosen said the WTA’s decision to potentially move tournaments out of China would be an “unprecedented stance for such a multinational organization.”

“The WTA has behaved very differently from any other such major sports organization with China interests (e.g., the NBA) or multinational corporations, all of whom, in one way or another, have apologized for offending China in hopes of maintaining ties to that lucrative market,” he said.

Dube said the bigger picture is that criticism of the top leaders is not permitted unless they’ve already been found guilty by the party itself.

“China’s Leninist party-state concentrates power at the top and demands discipline. That doesn’t mean that leaders are immune from standards and judgment, but the party reserves that to itself.”

He added that a number of top party figures are serving life or long sentences, most often for financial misdeeds and illicit sexual relationships.

“Most such relationships are depicted as consensual, though they obviously often involve individuals whose authority and status are quite unequal,” Dube said. “In Peng’s case, she’s alleged assault and abuse of power. These are major offenses, and the party-state will block public discussion of the allegations until it decides what happened and who, if anyone, shall be published.”