The Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused former senior Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her, followed by her abrupt, forced disappearance from public view and the censoring of the subject by the Chinese government. Her disappearance sparked worldwide concerns over her whereabouts and safety.
Peng’s accusation is the first of its sort made against a high-ranking Chinese government official. The incident brings attention to China’s #MeToo movement and how athletes who speak out are treated just months before the country hosts the 2022 Winter Olympics.
On Nov. 2, a post on Peng’s Weibo account—Twitter-like China’s platform—said that retired Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, who was once a member of China’s elite Politburo Standing Committee, forced Peng into having sex with him, despite her repeated refusals.
The post vanished 30 minutes after it was placed. On the other hand, screenshots were widely shared on social media sites outside of China, as well as in private WeChat and iMessage groups within China.
According to her post, Peng and Zhang had an on-off relationship since 2011. Zhang and his wife brought Peng over for dinner around three years ago, and he forced her to have sex, while his wife stood guard outside the door.
Peng has made no additional public statements and has not been seen in public since sending the letter, raising fears for her safety in a country where even the most famous and influential public personalities, including Alibaba founder Jack Ma, have been promptly silenced, reported Time.
Peng, 35, made several appearances over the past weekend, including a video call with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach. Still, they have failed to dispel doubts among fellow athletes and global organizations over her welfare.
“She explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time,” the IOC’s statement said.
However, that video and other glimpses of her, such as a film of her dining at a restaurant and an email reportedly from Peng and published by state-run China Global Television Network (CGTN) declaring “everything is fine” — have done little to assuage concerns.
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said that “assertions about her wellbeing need to come directly from her, unfiltered through the state-controlled media or peculiar, IOC-backed propaganda exercises.”
“If Chinese authorities want to substantiate her—or anyone else’s freedom—perhaps refrain from deleting their social media posts?”
Amnesty International’s China researcher Alkan Akad said the Chinese government “has so far shown no indication that they have treated Peng Shuai’s allegations of sexual assault seriously, let alone launched a proper and effective investigation into them.”
“So a good start for demonstrating Peng Shuai’s wellbeing would be to address the allegations she has made, rather than dismiss or ignore them.”
Zhang, who retired in 2018 and, like nearly other prominent Chinese officials, remains out of the public glare in retirement, has received less attention. Peng’s assertions have elicited no direct response from him or the Chinese government.
China’s State Council Information Office did not immediately react to a request for comment, and Zhang has not been made available for comment on Peng’s tweet, reported Reuters.
“Letting Zhang come out to speak will result in a reputational loss that it doesn’t want just before the Winter Games,” said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
“Even if the party does decide to take internal disciplinary action against Zhang, they won’t announce it right away, but will wait for the storm to blow over first, so as to show strength,” he added.
“If he admits to Peng’s allegation, then Peng could become a symbol that China’s feminist movement can rally around, which can potentially pose a challenge to the power of the party,” said Chen, the former associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.