Professional Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai publicly accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault on her verified Weibo account – China’s version of Twitter.
The post was quickly removed within 10 minutes, but the allegations set China’s tightly controlled Internet ablaze as thousands of Weibo users screenshotted and shared the post across the country.
Peng described in her Nov. 2 post how she had agreed to a consensual affair with the former vice premier after being invited to his house to share a meal and play tennis with him and his wife around a decade ago. However, three years ago, when Zhang was retired, he met her again and pressured her into sex.
“I never consented that afternoon, I was crying all the time,” she wrote. The tennis star said she then reluctantly agreed to continue the affair with him but was angered when Zhang insisted on it being kept secret.
Zhang, who served as vice premier from 2013 to 2018, was also one of seven members on the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), which effectively leads the country.
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When he allegedly canceled an appointment to discuss the affair on Nov. 2, Peng dropped her accusation online. “I know I can’t say it all clearly, and there’s no use in saying it,” she wrote. “But still I want to say it.”
When Peng and Zhang began their relationship, the latter was CCP secretary of Tianjin, a port city near Beijing. The affair was put off during the time that Zhang left to serve in the national leadership role.
According to Peng’s post, after Zhang retired he contacted her again to play tennis together with his wife Kang Jie. After the match, he brought her home, and allegedly made the advances on her despite Kang being present.
“I know that for someone of your eminence, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid,” she wrote in her post, “but even if it’s just me, like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to a flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you.”
Many praised Peng for her courage in speaking up against one of China’s most powerful men, while others expressed concern for her safety, as whistleblowers have been known to “disappear” after making public accusations or even for making controversial comments against high-ranking figures.
Larry Ong, China analyst with political risk consultancy SinoInsider, said: “It is highly risky for a professional tennis star to be accusing a former Politburo Standing Committee member [China’s top ruling body] of sexual assault regardless of the veracity of the allegation.”
“Peng Shuai is in no doubt aware of the severe consequences that could result from her actions, so the fact that she went ahead with her public accusation of Zhang Gaoli is very unusual,” Ong told Vision Times in an emailed statement.
Peng became the first Chinese tennis player to be ranked No. 1 in the Women’s Tennis Association for doubles in 2014. She also won gold at the Wimbledon doubles title in 2013 and the French Open in 2014 alongside her Taiwanese tennis partner Hsieh Su-wei.
As vice premier, Zhang managed major projects such as the Three Gorges dam, food safety and international investment. Previously, Zhang served as Party secretary of Tianjin, where he and Peng met in her 20s, from 2007 to 2012.
Chinese authorities were quick to block searches that included the word “tennis” across the social media platform and disabled Peng’s account, showing a glimpse of the iron grip the government wields upon its citizens.
Although Peng’s accusations could not be corroborated, The New York Times reported that in China, there remains an ingrained patriarchal tradition of using positions in business or government to gain sexual favors from subordinates or other women. In 2016, the country’s top prosecuting agency listed the exchange of “power for sex” as one of six traits of senior officials accused of corruption.
Ong, the China analyst, said that it’s possible Peng’s accusation could be linked to high-level struggle in the Communist Party. He notes that Zhang Gaoli is an ally of the powerful former Party leader Jiang Zemin, whose faction is opposed to China’s current leader Xi Jinping.
Critically, the CCP under Xi is about to hold a major political meeting, where it’s expected Beijing will unveil a rare “historical resolution.” Ong believes Peng Shuai’s accusation could be orchestrated as a means of “placing the Jiang faction on notice” and “forcing them to think twice before attempting to undermine Xi during this crucial period.”
“If Peng Shuai isn’t ‘disappeared’ and continues with her allegation, then we can expect more political drama ahead,” he told Vision Times.
The Washington Post reported that Peng did not respond to comment on Wednesday and China’s State Council Information Office did not reply to a faxed request to make Zhang available for interview.
Zhang who is in his mid-seventies also did not respond to comment.
Leo Timm contributed to this report.