China’s highest profile #MeToo accusation shows the limits of blanket censorship

Peng Shuai at the Australian Open in January 2020.
Peng Shuai at the Australian Open in January 2020.
Image: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji
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The world’s strongest censorship machine hasn’t been able to stop China’s highest profile #MeToo allegation yet—aimed at the top level of the Communist Party—from being discussed both inside and outside the country’s great firewall.

Late yesterday (Nov. 2), one of China’s best known female tennis players, Peng Shuai, who was once seen as “the hope of China’s tennis,” alleged in a lengthy post on social media platform Weibo that she was pressured into having sex by Zhang Gaoli, who was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, a seven-member group of the Party’s top leadership, from 2012 to 2017. The post was deleted in about 20 minutes, according to Taiwanese news outlet TVBS News. But citizens accustomed to content disappearing without a trace had already screenshot the message and circulated it using coded language. Soon the post was widely shared on English-language platforms, as well, including Twitter and the China newsletter Sinocism, showing the limits of even a pervasive censorship system that employs tens of thousands of people and sophisticated algorithms.

The speed at which Weibo censored Peng’s post was within the “normal to slow” range, said Eric Liu, a former censor who worked at the company. “Usually speaking, the more sensitive words a post has, the more likely it will be spotted by censors. There were lots of sensitive words in the repostings of Peng’s post, but the reason for it to not be deleted that quickly might be because of the company’s lack of budget, as to increase the timeliness of censorship would increase its labor costs,” Liu, who is now based in the US and analyzes censorship for news website China Digital Times, told Quartz.

The comment section of Peng’s Weibo page was disabled around the same time her post was censored, while searches of her name failed to lead to her Weibo account, which however still exists as of writing.

A #MeToo allegation against the highest level of the Communist Party

Although China’s #MeToo movement has brought down A-list stars like Kris Wu, and posed a challenged to the drinking culture at tech firms such as Alibaba, this is the most significant allegation against a top political leader the country has seen, although details of corruption investigations of Chinese officials have long suggested that political power is linked to seeking and obtaining sexual relations.

While Zhang served as vice premier between 2013 and 2018, Peng herself is a well-known name in the tennis world. She won the women’s doubles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the following year at the French Open. In 2013, Peng also won the championships for both women’s doubles and singles at China’s 12th National Games, the country’s most important sports event.

In the now deleted post, Peng said that she and Zhang, who is married, had previously had a sexual encounter seven years earlier but lost touch when the official was promoted. About three years ago, not long after his retirement, Zhang invited Peng to play tennis with him around three years ago, and then began pressuring her for sex. She refused and began crying, but after Zhang continued to insist, urging her to “drop her mental burden,” and reminding her of their earlier relationship, she agreed despite feeling “afraid and panicked.”

Peng said that in the wake of that meeting she resumed a relationship with Zhang, now 75. But after Zhang canceled a meeting with her yesterday, Peng said she was upset over her frustration at seeing Zhang “vanishing” from her life. Quartz was not able to verify the authenticity of the post, or its allegations against Zhang, and there has been no mainland coverage of the news.

“I always stand with bad girls”

People in China are also using cryptic language, including the names of celebrities or historical figures that sound similar to Zhang and Peng, to continue the discussion about the accusation. For example, the names of both Zhang Guoli, a famous male TV star, and Zhu Geliang, a figure from the Classical Chinese epic Three Kingdoms were at one point used by Weibo users to refer to Zhang, the former leader. This has left many confused users asking what had happened to the two.

In another instance, some used a term Peng used to describe herself in the post to show their sympathy and solidarity with the tennis player. “I admit that I’m not a good girl, I’m a very, very bad girl,” Peng wrote at one point in her account of her ties with Zhang.

“I would always stand on the side of bad girls,” wrote one user.

“From the Kris Wu incident to what happened yesterday, the victims kept saying they are not good girls…But being a good girl is being submissive and makes it easy for you to be exploited…be a bad girl, be more selfish, protect yourself,” wrote another.