This post was co-written by Alex Yu.
Late in the evening of November 2, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai made an earth-shaking allegation: that a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee sexually assaulted her, and then kept her as his mistress. Peng posted an essay on Weibo alleging that Zhang Gaoli, former Vice Premier and member of the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, coerced her into a sexual relationship. The essay was censored approximately half an hour after it was posted to Weibo, and a feverish cat-and-mouse game of censorship ensued. By the end of the night, Peng Shuai—a Wimbledon and French Open doubles champ once ranked number one in the world—had become part of the ever-expanding repository of sensitive words on the Chinese internet. Although she did not explicitly identify herself with the #MeToo movement, many view her essay as the first #MeToo post to broach sexual assault at the highest levels of the Chinese government.
According to Peng’s account, she and Zhang Gaoli first had sex more than ten years ago in Tianjin, when Zhang was the city’s Party chief. Peng alleged that the two reconnected about three years ago, after Zhang’s retirement, when he invited her to play tennis and subsequently pressured her into having sex in his bedroom, while his wife guarded the door from outside:
I did not consent at first that afternoon. I cried the whole time. When I had dinner with you and Auntie Kang Jie [Zhang’s wife], you said that the universe was so big that the earth was no more than a grain of sand in comparison, and that we humans were even less than that. You kept talking, trying to persuade me to let go of my “mental baggage.” After dinner, when I was still reluctant, you said that you hated me! You then said that you had never forgotten about me over the past seven years, and that you would take care of me …I said yes because I was scared and panicky, and still had feelings for you from seven years ago … and then, yes, we had sex.
[…] You were always afraid I would make recordings and keep them as evidence. In fact, I have no evidence or proof other than my own word. I don’t have any recordings or videos. All I have are the true experiences of my own twisted self. I know that you, the high and mighty Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, have said you’re not afraid. But even if I’m like an egg cracking against a rock or a moth to the flame, bent on self-destruction, I will speak the truth about you and me. I suspect that, given your intelligence, you’ll try to deny this or strike back at me. The world is but a plaything to you. You always say you hope your mother is watching over you from heaven. I’m a bad girl who doesn’t deserve to be a mother. You’re a father with a son and daughter. I’ve asked you before: if it were your adopted daughter, would you force her to do what I’ve done? Could you really, in good conscience, bear to face your mother after all you’ve done in your life? We are all so sanctimonious … [Chinese]
Almost as soon as the essay was posted, Peng Shuai and Zhang Gaoli’s names were censored. Attempts to post their names on Weibo triggered a notice that “relevant laws and regulations” prevented the action. Soon after, their initials “PS” and “ZGL” were also censored, driving Weibo users to take refuge in a host of increasingly abstract homophones, allusions, variant characters and improvised stand-ins. Zhang Gaoli became “Zhuge Liang,” the famed military strategist of yore, and “Zhang Guoli,” the popular actor/director/comedian. Peng Shuai became “Bodhisattva” (菩萨 Púsà), singer/songwriter “Pu Shu,” and “Marshal (元帅 Yuánshuài) Peng Dehuai,” all of which share pinyin initials or other elements with her name. After Weibo began censoring those terms as well, users took to posting the phrase: “Eddie Peng is so handsome.” (The Taiwanese actor and Peng Shuai share the same surname, and the tennis star’s given name uses the character for “handsome.”)
A Weibo user posts “Eddie Peng is just too handsome,” while sharing a flipped, upside-down screenshot of Peng Shuai’s original Weibo post.
Weibo also locked down miscellaneous posts from years past relating to Peng Shuai, Zhang Gaoli, tennis, and even British politician Matt Hancock’s affair after the latter became an avenue for netizens’ sarcastic discussions on the improprieties of foreign officials. Douban banned users who mentioned Peng’s post, even obliquely, and censored commentary on the Korean drama “The Prime Minister and I” after it became a code-word for Zhang Gaoli and Peng Shuai. Tencent removed the popular drama from its streaming service. Douban also removed a post that substituted former United States Vice President Mike Pence for Zhang and Serena Williams for Peng.
Weibo used nearly all the tools in its censorship toolkit to suppress discussion of Peng’s post. Searches for “the universe is so big,” a line from Peng’s post, returned only results from verified organization accounts (personal accounts, even verified, were excluded), and searches for “tennis” were similarly restricted. By preventing the display of non-verified users’ posts, Weibo was able to dramatically streamline its censorship by limiting the number of accounts it had to censor.
Given the stringent censorship of verified Weibo accounts and close scrutiny of any content relating to Party leaders, some have wondered why Weibo allowed Peng to post her message in the first place. CDT Chinese’s Eric Liu, who formerly worked as a Weibo censor, wrote that athletes and other celebrities who rarely post on political themes do not have their posts inspected before publication, unlike those users considered “sensitive Big V’s,” who have each of their posts screened. Peng’s post was left up for approximately 30 minutes before censors deleted it, a timeframe Liu called “normal to slow.” The post did not go viral while it was live, likely because of Weibo’s “automatic shadow ban” feature, which makes potentially sensitive posts unsearchable and thus less viral. Her post was only shared 1,000 times in the 34 minutes that it was uncensored, but after it was deleted, it was searched for 6,749,000 times. Peng’s Weibo account still exists, although all her posts are locked and her bio, which once was the opening lines of her post about Zhang Gaoli, has been changed to an anodyne description of her athletic accomplishments.
While intense, the censorship of Peng’s account does not compare to that of Hao Haidong, widely considered the greatest soccer player in Chinese history. In 2020, Hao declared his opposition to the Chinese Communist Party and his intention to create the “New Federal State of China” with Guo Wengui and Steve Bannon. Hao’s name became a “first-level” sensitive word and all of his accounts across all social media platforms were deleted. His website haohaidong.com.cn was also taken offline.
Not all censorship was imposed from above. Some users accused those posting about the scandal on foreign social media sites of “passing the knife” to foreign forces. This left many in a hopeless predicament: “Post on the foreign internet and give hostile foreign forces a smoking gun. Post on the Chinese internet and see it deleted in seconds, accompanied by a comment ban. You lose no matter what.”
Weibo users hunting for censored news wrote of seeking “melons” or “melon seeds,” both online slang terms for morsels of gossip. The word “melon” and the watermelon emoji were both subsequently banned by Weibo. Some delighted in the cheeky search for “melons,” for example by posting “eating melons” in the comment section of Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic’s latest Weibo post. The quest for “melons” turned the battle between censor and poster into a game. Yet others found the tongue-in-cheek use of “eating melons” unseemly. “When a heart-wrenching accusation becomes a meme like ‘a melon we commoners can’t eat,’ they’ve already won,” wrote one Douban user. Another implored others to remember Peng’s pain, which they felt was obscured by the talk of “melons.” Others lamented that the pressures of censorship had destroyed language and turned learning the truth into a fearful thing:
There is a “new normal” in this land: On hearing about the scandals of high-level officials, our instinctive reaction is fear. We know which side will win before the battle is even fought. Everyone knows this, but no one dares to discuss it; everything is secretive, and swept under the rug. Everything is reduced to code words; everyone nudges you into deleting your posts. It’s as if, by the simple act of reading something, we have become the wrongdoers. [Chinese]
Peng Shuai’s allegation is nigh unprecedented in modern Chinese history, and entirely unprecedented in China’s #MeToo movement, which had not previously touched the upper echelons of the Party. Sexual impropriety by lower-ranking Party officials, however, is less uncommon news. A study by researchers at Beijing’s Renmin University found that 95% of high-level officials detained for corruption in 2012 had had extramarital affairs; in 60% of these cases, sexual misconduct was the primary cause of their downfall. Scandals involving lower-level officials’ sexual improprieties often go viral. In March, a young woman was sentenced to prison after her former lovers, all powerful officials in small-town Jiangsu, turned on her and likely framed her for extortion. Her case went viral and drew nationwide attention. When Zhou Yongkang was snared by Xi’s anti-corruption campaign in 2014, social media users were given free rein to speculate on his sexual habits. There was even a game released on QQ and WeChat titled, “Do You Dare Touch The Tiger’s Butt?” The crucial difference between these past cases and Peng Shuai’s accusation against Zhang Gaoli is that Zhou, and countless other disgraced officials, were only fair game for public discussion after their downfall within the Party, whereas Zhang is a Party member seemingly in good standing.
Dubbed a “cautious reformer” by some Western media, Zhang is known for keeping a low profile. In the course of his career, he has made very few public appearances or speeches. According to an official media report published in 2013, he has one son, who at the time was a low-ranking military officer. Left out of the official report was Zhang’s adopted daughter named Zhang Xiaoyan, whom Peng Shuai mentioned in her essay. The younger Zhang is married to Hong Kong businessman Lee Shing Put, who had business operations in Tianjin, where Zhang Gaoli once served as Party chief. The couple were named in Panama Papers as shareholders of offshore companies incorporated in the British Virgin Islands.
Authorities have allowed discussion of other #MeToo accusations when politically expedient. After a fan accused Chinese-Canadian megastar Kris Wu of rape, authorities allowed discussion to percolate online, likely because the accusation coincided with a crackdown on the entertainment industry. But #MeToo activists who have taken a stand against the patriarchal structure of Chinese society have faced severe backlash. Huang Xueqin, a feminist activist, was detained in September and has been held incommunicado ever since. Zhou Xiaoxuan, better known as Xianzi, has repeatedly had her social media accounts shuttered. News of her ultimately unsuccessful suit against powerful television anchor Zhu Jun for sexual harassment was universally censored, “no exceptions.” She posted a veiled message of solidarity with Peng Shuai on Wechat near midnight on Tuesday evening, “I hope she’s safe.” A post from a Weibo user on the same night reflected: “Thinking back to when China’s #MeToo first emerged, some said it started in the entertainment world because it was the most chaotic. Obviously not—it’s just because the other [political] power system is more tightly closed and cannot be exposed.” Despite such state-directed pressure and harassment, #MeToo continues to exert a powerful influence on Chinese society. In a Twitter essay, later republished by CDT Chinese, U.S.-based feminist activist Lü Pin reflected on the enduring power of China’s “Rice Bunny” movement [“Rice bunny” is a homophonous euphemism for #MeToo]:
Everything is under surveillance. Even things yet unsent get censored. So many Rice Bunny voices were never heard, as can be imagined. Today the barriers to speaking up are extremely high. Nonetheless, Rice Bunny continues to break through censorship. It relies on those touched and moved by the heart-wrenching accusations of victims, which inspires people to discuss and repost, and to speak on their behalf. It relies on this spontaneous wave of human emotion, so that eventually everyone is made aware of the truth, and censorship loses its power. [Chinese]
The Party’s official stance on Peng’s post is ignorance. “I haven’t heard of it and it isn’t a diplomatic question,” a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in response to a question about the case in a press briefing on Wednesday. As of Thursday, November 4, Peng’s whereabouts are unknown. Several foreign media outlets attempted to make contact with her or her representatives, but none were successful.