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Chinese tennis athlete accuses former top Communist Party official of sexual assault

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne in 2020. In a social media post on Tuesday, she described her alleged assault ten years ago at the hands of one of the country's most powerful Communist Party officials, Zhang Gaoli.
Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne in 2020. In a social media post on Tuesday, she described her alleged assault ten years ago at the hands of one of the country's most powerful Communist Party officials, Zhang Gaoli.

BEIJING – In a long, confessional social media post on Tuesday night, a celebrated Chinese athlete described her alleged assault ten years ago at the hands of one of the country's most powerful Communist Party officials at the time, which she says happened while someone stood guard outside the bedroom door.

"I was so scared that afternoon," Peng Shuai wrote in her post on the Chinese social media site Weibo. "I never gave consent, crying the entire time."

Peng, 35, is one of the country's most well-known tennis athletes. Now she has also launched one of China's most explosive #MeToo allegations yet against Zhang Gaoli, 75, a retired party official who once occupied the highest rungs of political power in China. It is the first such accusation against a senior Communist Party official.

Neither Peng nor Zhang could be reached for comment. In her post, Peng said she had preserved no evidence of her relationship with Zhang or of his alleged assault.

There was no official comment on the matter. "I have not heard of this issue, and it is not a diplomatic question," said a spokesperson for China's foreign ministry during a press briefing Wednesday.

Peng's social media post was quickly deleted by government censors. Her social media account disappeared hours after her post. China's state media outlets have not mentioned her accusations at all.

Screenshots of Peng's original post continued to circulate widely on the Chinese internet even as censors scrambled to delete any references to her allegations within group chats and blogs, a sign of the immense public interest in her allegations. The speed with which her post was deleted also reflects the extreme sensitivity of her remarks, which come just as Communist Party leaders convene in Beijing for the Sixth Plenum, an important political meeting during which the state is on high alert for any sign of discord.

Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli attends the sixth plenary meeting of the National People's Congress in 2013.
/ Feng Li/Getty Images
Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli attends the sixth plenary meeting of the National People's Congress in 2013.

Chinese internet users quickly adapted in conversations on social media, using workaround terms such as #tennis and #melon, the Chinese internet slang term for drama, to allude to Peng's accusations. Both terms were briefly trending on Weibo on Tuesday night.

The alleged sexual misdeeds of elite Communist officials have long been fodder for public gossip, intrigue which was closely chronicled in books that could once be sold in Hong Kong. State media sometimes acknowledged the misconduct by publicizing a steady drumbeat of minor officials deposed for their extramarital affairs.

"Peng Shuai's revelations have allowed us to see the reality of China's top leaders as never before, to look behind the trappings of power that hid their excessive abuse of power, their corruption and their terror," wrote Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist activist and scholar now based in New York.

In her post, Peng said she was first introduced to Zhang while he served as Party boss of the port city of Tianjin from 2007 to 2012. There, Zhang is best known for helping champion the Yujiapu Financial District, an infrastructure project intended to transform Tianjin's swampland into "China's Manhattan."

Tianjin racked up huge amounts of debt to do so, and many of the buildings remain empty, but Zhang was professionally rewarded for the project, moving on in 2012 to become the country's vice premier — and until 2017, a member of the Communist Party's powerful ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee.

Peng was also ascending professionally as China's top doubles tennis player. In 2013, she won Wimbledon's doubles championship with her partner, Taiwan's Hsieh Su-wei. The two women then won the doubles French Open the following year.

Peng says Zhang did not contact her for several years after the initial assault. But in 2018, the year Zhang retired from the government, Peng claims he got back in touch with her and the two began a tumultuous but consensual romantic relationship which ended when he cut off all contact.

China's faltering #MeToo movement has toppled journalists, academics and workers for non-governmental organizations, but it had not touched China's ruling Communist Party until now. The movement has floundered in part because of the high legal burden of proof required in courts to prove sexual assault and because of the political pressure brought to bear on accusers.

Peng's case will almost certainly not be heard in court or even publicly acknowledged..

"I know that for someone of your stature, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you have said that you are not afraid," Peng wrote in her post. "But even if it is like throwing an egg against rock, or if I am like a moth drawn to the flame, inviting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you."

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