Beijing faces some tough volleys

Hari Kumar

Tennis star Peng Shuai’s allegations against a top leader have put the Chinese authorities in a tight spot.

Zhang Gaoli | Photo: AFP

It began on November 2 with a short message – a confession – posted on the internet by China’s Wimbledon and French Open doubles title winner, Peng Shuai, about sexual harassment and assault she faced a decade ago.

Such #MeToo stories had surfaced in China before also, but this was different.

Peng claimed that Zhang Gaoli, a senior vice premier and a member of China’s highest ruling council, the Politburo Standing Committee, sexually assaulted her a decade ago and then kept her as his mistress. Peng must have been in her mid-20s then, and Zhang in his mid-60s. The posting also insinuated that Zhang’s wife willingly let this happen.

While none of the allegations Peng posted on her Weibo page can be verified, most of the Chinese public view her claims as genuine. Besides, the turbulence it caused at the high echelons was also evident. Within 20 minutes of its posting, the message disappeared from the website, her account was scrubbed out, and any search of her name turned out blank. Above all, her whereabouts became unknown.

Zhang Gaoli
Zhang Gaoli | Photo: AFP

All these invigorated the chatter about the tennis star not only in the social media savvy section of the Chinese population, but also globally – something Beijing may not have anticipated.

A list of top players, from Serena Williams to Naomi Osaka and veterans like Chris Evert issued public statements raising concerns about Peng’s allegations. Top men’s players Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal also added their voices to her cause.

Sports stars commenting about China can lead to tricky situations. Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey and Arsenal Football Club’s Mesut Ozil “disappeared” from the Chinese internet after their criticisms of CCP’s policies. Their teams worked furiously to placate China and avoid financial losses worth millions of dollars, inviting criticisms about their lack of integrity.

What is different this time is the bold attitude that the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and its officials have adopted.

WTA chairman Steve Simon threw down the gauntlet by declaring that the association is willing to pull out of a 100-million-dollar contract with China over the issue and demanded details about Peng’s whereabouts and her safety.

Beijing authorities have not made an official comment for nearly three weeks, but have allowed Peng to speak with International Olympic Committee (IOC) chairman Thomas Bach on a video call. This has again raised eyebrows as WTA says it is unable to get in touch with Peng, a statement and picture released by IOC shows a video call taking place.

According to IOC, Peng “explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time."

Some state-run media employees had earlier selectively released pictures and messages purported to be from Peng to show she is well, happy and leading a normal life. But none of this could convince the sceptics. They demanded more credible proof as none of them was coming from Peng herself.

The timing of the scandal, just as the top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party were getting ready for their plenum to endorse the continued leadership of Xi Jinping, had raised eyebrows, and set tongues wagging about how this could be linked to factional fighting with the party.

Peng Shuai
Peng Shuai | Photo: AP

Some observers suspect that Peng is a convenient character in the Chinese Communist Party’s political shadow play, and this Peng episode is created for discrediting the so-called Shanghai faction that the former president Jiang Zhemin leads against President Xi Jinping. The man Peng has accused of sexual assault, Zhang Gaoli, though now retired, belongs to the Shanghai faction.

Some others think that the current row is the effect of the rising feminist movement in the country and even speculate that it is the biggest threat to the male-dominated CCP’s grip on the nation.

Even before the #MeToo movement erupted, women activists had caught the attention of the public through their protests. Five of them were arrested in 2015 and jailed for over a month.

Leta Hong Fincher, who has written two books on the feminist movement in the country says modern women in China are rebelling against the push to make them go back to their traditional family role as birth rate continues to fall. Young women also bristle at issues like domestic violence and workplace discrimination.

The Communist Party had promoted gender equality in its early days and Mao Zedong’s famous saying that “Women hold up half the sky” helped break the feudal system that had chained down the women who became a major part of the labour force.

But the economic development in the last four decades did not reflect an equal expansion of opportunities for women. The educated and savvy young women of China fume at this. Women make up a high percentage of the workforce in China, but very few make it to the director boards.

This is not just in work places. The CCP itself remains a bastion of men as only a handful of women had risen to the top tier of the party in its 100 years of existence.

Fincher says the rising awareness among women about their status could be the most challenging thing that the Communist Party has faced so far. It could be the ‘most transformative movement’ in the country, she told a media interview.

Peng Shuai
Peng Shuai | Photo: AP

The establishment had so far kept the #MeToo movement in China under control and had never allowed it to flare up, though some high-profile media stars have appeared in the court over this. But a senior CCP leader now stands accused and it will be interesting to see how the party leadership handles this.

While the CCP publicly upholds equality and respect for women, rumours of sexual escapades of some top leaders often found its way to publications outside, but were always dismissed by the party. Moreover, many of the people jailed in the anti-corruption crackdown of Xi were charged with infidelity, signalling the party’s tough stance against such acts.

Just a few weeks ago a well-known pianist in the country, Li Yundi, was detained after he was charged with hiring a sex worker. The 39-year-old pianist was immediately thrown out of the professional musicians’ association, practically ending his career.

We may never know if this whole saga is a cynical political game that some leaders are orchestrating as Xi cements his position as a lifelong leader, or it is a genuine plea by a helpless woman who lacked the courage to speak out against a powerful tormentor a decade ago.

Meanwhile, the earlier call from the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) for “a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship,” into Peng’s allegation of sexual assault, remains, threatening that Beijing could face a boycott of its Winter Olympics slated for February.

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