CW: This article contains discussion about sexual assault, abuse.
Another #MeToo case has rocked the headlines around the world, well everywhere but China that is.
One of China’s top tennis stars, Peng Shuai (彭帅/彭帥 ), recently came forward with allegations of sexual assault against former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo Standing Committee member Zhang Gaoli (张高丽/張高麗). Peng stated in a Weibo post directed at Zhang, “[t]hat afternoon I originally did not consent and cried the whole time.” Then she stated that after being coerced into sex, the two began a secret relationship together that lasted years, but also that she felt like a “walking corpse.”
The sexual abuse of women by powerful men in China is unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence, though recently more and more women have been speaking out about the harassment and abuse that they have suffered. This is due in part to the, now worldwide, #MeToo Movement.
The #MeToo Movement in China has seen numerous high profile cases recently including that of Du Meizhu (都美竹) who accused EXO, a massively popular K-pop group, star Kris Wu of sexual assault earlier this year. Multiple other cases have appeared and quickly slipped from the headlines, and of course many others are covered up or the victims never speak out for fear of reprisal, whether from the government, their abusers, or the public. While heartbreaking, this is not surprising as there is a culture of shame and continued abuse against those that are brave enough to tell their stories, this is of course not limited to China.
Those that do speak out often talk about how they are bad or dirty, almost certainly an internalization of the vitriolic misogyny engrained in them from a patriarchal society that views victims of sexual abuse as “used” or “dirty” due to the abuse that they have encountered. In Du’s case she mentioned that she knew the public already thought that she was “spoiled underwear” and in Peng’s case she repeatedly states that she knows she is a “bad woman” and declares that she’s undeserving to be a mother.
These statements clearly show the manifestation and internalization of archaic ideas of female purity which are often used to shame victims into remaining silent or even blaming themselves for their abuse, while simultaneously allowing abusers to get away scot-free and often empowering them to continue their abuse. Even those that are not explicitly victims of sexual harassment or abuse themselves but attempt to speak out for women’s rights, often simply asking for the right not to be tormented or abused in China, are often jailed. The Feminist Five are one prime example of this.
The Feminist Five were, as their name would suggest, a group of five feminists that took early steps to speak out against sexual harassment in China. They are still revered by many in the feminist movement today. Back in 2015 they took to the streets to distribute stickers to protest the wanton harassment of Chinese women and were arrested for ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ (a law often used to silence dissidents or even mild critics in China).
Others have spoken up too. Huang Xueqin (黄雪琴), a journalist covering the #MeToo Movement in China has been detained twice. Her first arrest and subsequent detainment in a Chinese black site in 2019 was almost certainly in regards to her blog posts regarding protests in Hong Kong at the time. She was again detained in 2021 alongside another #MeToo supporter Wang Jianbing (王建兵), leading many to believe that her support for the movement was the reason for her arrest.
Huang actually produced a study of female journalists in China. She asked 416 of them if they had ever had any experience with sexual assaults in the workplace, a staggering 84% answered that they had. The rate of cases that go to trail in China regarding sexual harassment and violence is staggeringly low, even lower is the rate of conviction (especially for a court system that has over a 99.93% conviction rate). Sophie Richardson, writing for Human Rights Watch where she is the China Director, wrote that:
“Among the over 50 million court verdicts from 2010 to 2017 available publicly, only 34 focused on sexual harassment, according to a June study by the Beijing Yuanzhong Gender Development Center. Among those 34 cases, only two were brought by victims suing alleged harassers, and both of those cases were dismissed for lack of evidence.”
This is exemplary of why it is so surprising that Peng would step forward and, hopefully, why it could be such as powerful moment for those seeking to combat sexual violence and harassment in China. She is a huge star that likely could have maintained her wealth and relatively powerful position in society if she remained quiet, however she decided to call out one of the most powerful men in China and potentially bring down the full wrath of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Unfortunately it seems as though this may be what is currently happening.
After putting out her message (full text English/Mandarin below) directed at Zhang on Weibo, Peng’s post was censored. The CCP even went so far as to ban search terms such as ‘tennis’ to make sure that the news was stopped in its tracks. This is classic Chinese authoritarianism. It has been this way since the beginning, but especially after Deng Xiaoping (邓小平,鄧小平) gave an inch toward freedom of speech with the Democracy Wall, then immediately cracked down when he realized that any open debate and criticism would lead to the Party being at the forefront of criticism. This has only become more all-encompassing as technology has proliferated and allowed for the creation of a technological panopticon. This is also because the Party has all the power, and absolute power, well you know the quote. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop at deleted posts.
Peng is now nowhere to be found. She has fallen off the grid and no one, at least no one with access to the outside world that isn’t the Chinese government, has been able to contact her. Thankfully some people are paying attention, in fact many notable people in the tennis world, including Naomi Osaka and Billie Jean King, have spoken out asking about her whereabouts. There has even been a hashtag started on Twitter, #WhereIsPengShuai.
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) November 16, 2021
There was radio silence until November 17th when CGTN, a state-owned Chinese media outlet, released a dubious Tweet with a picture of what they allege to be an email from Peng Shuai. The screenshot states that she is at home and resting and saying that the statements released by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), that showed grave concern over her wellbeing, were not verified by her.
Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has sent an email to Steve Simon, the WTA Chairman & CEO, CGTN has learned. The email reads: pic.twitter.com/uLi6Zd2jDI
— CGTN (@CGTNOfficial) November 17, 2021
This email is suspicious at best, as you can literally see a blinking cursor in the first paragraph. She also opens what is alleged to be a direct letter to Steve Simon, Chairman and CEO of the WTA, with “Hello everyone.” While neither of these is sufficient evidence to prove that the text was not written by Peng it is still extremely questionable. This short email is also not enough to prove either way if Peng is safe or whether or not it was penned by her, even if it was she may have been coerced to write it. Many around the world seem to feel the same way and have be lambasting CGTV for its post. Even the WTA seems to find the supposed email to be suspicious.
Steve Simon, WTA Chairman and CEO, raised concerns in a statement saying, “The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.” Continuing to state that he has “a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her.” He continues to speak about her bravery in being willing to speak out about the alleged sexual violence perpetrated against her and that she must be allowed to “speak freely, without coercion.”
While I’m no sportsball super fan, nor am I one to give endorsements of giant corporations, especially athletic ones that so often put profits before people, the resiliency of the WTA to not abandon their position is pretty impressive. Simon has even threatened to pull out of of China if the situation is not handled correctly stating, “If at the end of the day, we don’t see the appropriate results from this, we would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China if that’s what it came to.” This is especially surprising when one thinks of the billions that China has already spent and plans to spend on WTA events, streaming rights, stadiums, and prize money. This year’s finals were originally supposed to be held in Shenzhen, China, but were moved to Mexico due to Covid restrictions. The finals are expected to return to Shenzhen next year, where they are planned to be held until 2030.
It is unfortunate that more organizations refuse to act in this way, putting human rights and the safety of the people in their organization first instead of profits. While the WTA will be fine either way, the same could be said of numerous other organizations like the IOC and NBA, and yet they refuse to do so. This is also as we rapidly approach the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and shows the potential danger that Olympic athletes, especially female ones, will be heading into, not that the corrupt IOC cares (though I do have some thoughts on how the Olympics could be done better). Refusing to do this allows bad actors to maintain their bad behaviors and launder their reputation at the same time.
Now it lies on organizations to keep ratcheting up the pressure and stick to their guns. They must not allow China to get away with such a sloppy, halfhearted attempt at sweeping this situation under the rug. If Peng Shuai is safe, and I deeply hope that she is, it is now up to Beijing to prove that by allowing her to come out on her own and demonstrate her safety. It is also paramount that international organizations no longer sit idly by while human rights are flagrantly violated. Honestly it shouldn’t take a woman being sexually abused and then kidnapped before there are threats to pull organizations out. The human rights violations already taking place in China should have been enough to demand vast change before ever entering in the first place. Likewise ending these systems of abuse needs to be a priority and a prerequisite for all organizations to operate there.
Fans and people in general must also push their governments and organizations around the world to do the right thing, precedent clearly shows us that they won’t do it on their own. Whether this is through refusing to support them financially or writing letters or protesting, it is imperative that we refuse to sit idly by while human rights are tossed aside for capitalistic plunder.
Below are the original Weibo post by Peng Shuai and two translations of her statements into English as well as a video by Jordan describing the situation and #MeToo Movement in China.
tanslation from Reddit user r/ChunghwaMinkuo