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The Suspicious ‘Disappearance’ Of China’s Tennis Star Is Right Out Of The Chinese Communist Playbook


Chinese Tennis star Peng Shuai mysteriously “disappeared” after accusing a senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official of sexual assaults on social media. Her disappearance and the Chinese authorities’ clumsy cover-up only have raised fear among fans of her safety and confirmed the despicable nature of the CCP.

Peng is a mega tennis star in China. In 2014, she was ranked No. 1 in the world as a doubles player by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), an accomplishment that no female Chinese tennis star previously held.

She achieved No. 14 of the singles rankings in August 2011. She won two singles, 22 doubles titles, and played in three Olympics throughout her career. The 35-year-old is one of the most popular and most recognized athletes in China and has more than half a million followers on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform.

On November 2, Peng posted on Weibo a detailed allegation accusing senior CCP official Zhang Gaoli, 75, of sexual assault three years ago. Zhang served as the senior vice premier of Communist China between 2013 and 2018, and was a member of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest power center, between 2012 and 2017. Zhang has since retired.

According to Peng’s post, she and Zhang began an extramarital affair in 2011. Peng didn’t explain the circumstances, but she expressed her humiliation of being Zhang’s secret mistress during that time.

Given Zhang’s powerful position and age difference – Peng was only 25 and Zhang was 65 at the time – it is difficult to say how consensual their relationship was. Peng said Zhang was adamant about preventing her from keeping any evidence of their relationship. After he was promoted to the position of vice-premier, Peng alleged, Zhang abandoned her.

Then three years ago, Zhang and his wife invited Peng to their home after playing tennis together. With Zhang’s wife guarding the door to prevent Peng from leaving, Peng alleges Zhang sexually assaulted her.

“I couldn’t describe how disgusted I was, and how many times I asked myself, ‘Am I still a human?’ I feel like a walking corpse. Every day I was acting. Which person is the real me?” Peng wrote. Her heartfelt essay struck a nerve in China and was widely shared.

Within 20 minutes of Peng’s posting, though, Chinese censors removed it and Weibo blocked her account. Some Chinese netizens grabbed screenshots of her essay. Chinese censors deleted all images of Peng’s post, shut down any private group discussions on the matter, made Peng’s name unsearchable, and even went as far as to prevent fans from discussing a K-drama “Prime Minister and I” on a Chinese movie review site.

Suspiciously, no one has known Peng’s whereabouts since then.

Despite China’s economic development, Chinese society has largely remained socially reticent. Many sexual assault victims do not feel comfortable coming forward due to the social and cultural pressure that blames victims. Since 2018, under the influence of a global Me Too movement, Chinese feminists have made several sexual assault cases against high-profile alleged offenders public.

Chinese authorities regard any grassroots political movement as a threat to the CCP, they have responded to the Me Too movement with suppression. They jailed activists of China’s Me Too movement and journalists who reported sexual assault cases involving influential figures and took down Me Too-related online discussions.

Yet authorities let some cases go forward if they will serve a political purpose. For example, in August this year, Chinese police arrested Kris Wu, a China-born Canadian citizen, after rape allegations. Wu’s arrest took place around the same time the Chinese authorities made several of China’s movie stars, such as Zhao Wei “disappear.” Therefore, Wu’s arrest probably should be viewed more as part of the Chinese government’s crackdown on its entertainment industry, driven by the pursuit of ideology purity, rather than supporting victims.

Zhang Gaolin is the highest-ranked CCP official to be publicly accused of sexual assault. Beijing will likely punish him, not for sexual assault, but for putting the CCP in an embarrassing situation. For now, rather than conducting an investigation, it is suspected that authorities are punishing Peng by making her allegedly “disappear.”

Prominent tennis stars are calling attention to Peng’s safety and demanding an investigation. The No. 1 ranked female tennis player, Naomi Osaka, tweeted, “Censorship is never OK at any cost. I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and ok. I’m in shock of the current situation, and I’m sending love and light her way. #WhereisPengShuai.” The WTA called on Beijing to investigate the allegations of sexual assault and disclosed that it hadn’t reached her personally.

After the story picked up international attention, Chinese state media CGTN posted on Twitter this week a screenshot of an email purportedly written by Peng to WTA Chief Executive Steve Simon. The email claims that her “allegation of sexual assault is not true” and she is “not missing” nor “unsafe.” She “has been resting at home and everything is fine.”

Instead of quieting international chatter about Peng’s safety and her allegation, this “everything is fine” email raised more questions. WTA CEO Steve Simon issued a statement, stating, “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her.” He also said the publication of such an email “only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.” Amnesty International demands Beijing prove that Peng is safe and investigate her allegation.

The entire situation confirms what we already knew about the CCP. First, the CCP is ruthless and cold-blooded. The rule of law means nothing to it. The party will do anything to protect its own at the expense of the Chinese people. It will never hesitate to eliminate any real or perceived threat.

Second, never expect any honesty and transparency from the CCP. When something bad happens, the party’s response has always been first to deny, then cover up. That’s what happened during last year’s COVID-19 pandemic. The CCP denied any responsibility and covered up what it knew about the origin of the Wuhan coronavirus.

Third, despite the CCP’s intense focus and investment in recent years to influence and shape international public opinion about China, its propaganda machine hasn’t been very effective. The tweet by state media CGTN with a screenshot of an email supposedly written by Pengshui is a good example.

It reminds me of a Chinese idiom, 掩耳盗铃, or in English, “plugging one’s ears while stealing a bell.” The expression means he who thought he could deceive himself and others while doing something terrible ends up fooling no one.

While no one should be surprised by Beijing’s behaviors, the question remains how the rest of the world should respond if China continues to stonewall any questions regarding Peng’s safety and her allegation. President Joe Biden said recently that he is “considering a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics hosted by China.” Maybe the way the Chinese authorities treated Peng will help Biden turn his consideration into decisive action.