On a frosty day in December 2017, a stern-faced official in a fur-lined cap surveyed construction of the sprawling Genting Snow Park in China’s Hebei province. Genting was to be the venue for various skiing and snowboarding events at the 2022 Winter Games. The official was Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, then China’s point person in charge of making sure the Olympics went off without a hitch.
Zhang’s mission appears to have been accomplished; in the coming days, Olympians will be soaring and flipping over the park’s slopes and halfpipes.
But today, Zhang Gaoli’s name is known for other reasons. An allegation directed at Zhang a few months ago threatened the Chinese Communist Party’s control domestically and reputation internationally.
In a November social media post, Chinese tennis star and three-time Olympian Peng Shuai accused the now-retired official of forcing her into sex. It was the most high-profile sexual assault allegation in China’s recent history.
Peng’s post went out to more than 590,000 followers, but it ricocheted across the Chinese internet for less than half an hour before China’s censorship machine went into high gear — deleting the message itself and then scrubbing the web to erase nearly every mention of Peng’s claim. Rather than investigating the case, authorities set out to smother it.
What happened to Peng — and to the man she accused? And how successful has China’s crackdown been?
In some ways, the past few months have shown just how powerful the party’s grip over domestic speech remains — and how threatened the party was by Peng’s allegations. But as China has successfully maintained a domestic media blackout, Peng’s case has continued to garner widespread attention outside China. Beyond human rights organizations, Peng’s treatment has angered #MeToo advocacy groups, sports fans and several of the biggest names in tennis — from Novak Djokovic to Naomi Osaka and many others.
“Peng is an inspirational human being, someone who commands respect and invites empathy, someone who is a source of national pride,” David Bandurski, director of the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, told Grid in an email. “Her accusations against a high-level Party official undermine the integrity of the Party itself, something Xi Jinping has emphasized as fundamental. So sensitive are the repercussions of this story that it must be controlled at all cost. Domestically, this means silence — a silence as absolute as possible. But internationally silence is not an option.”
And internationally, China’s clampdown may have backfired.
What Peng said
Peng’s account has been published only in a line or two in most media reports. In fact, it ran 1,600 Chinese characters, and to understand the story and the power dynamic between Zhang and Peng, it helps to read more than those few lines.
Peng detailed the many layers of her relationship with the 75-year-old Zhang — a man she had known for more than a decade.
Her post began with an incident she said happened about three years ago, after Zhang had retired. Peng said Zhang reached out to her to play tennis, an invitation she accepted. After the match, Zhang and his wife invited Peng back to his house. There he tried to force her to have sex with him — “I was very scared that afternoon,” she wrote.
At first, Peng said she refused and cried. Later, after dinner with Zhang and his wife, Zhang tried again — and Peng said she once again pushed back. Eventually, however, Peng relented, and they had sex. “I was afraid and panicked,” she wrote, “and carrying my feelings toward you from seven years ago, I agreed.” (In the post, she mentioned that she and Zhang had had sex seven years earlier, before Zhang became a vice premier.)
After the 2018 incident, Peng wrote that she was pulled back into Zhang’s orbit. They continued to see each other, and Peng said Zhang treated her well, but she also said she felt increasingly upset as she lived this secret life. “I felt that I was a zombie,” she wrote.
For Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist activist based in the U.S., Peng’s descriptions showed “the psychological conflict suffered by those caught up in a situation like this.”
Peng wrote that by the end of October 2021, Zhang was avoiding her after a disagreement, and she felt that he had “played” with her and then was no longer interested.
On Nov. 2, Peng published her now-famous post, saying she felt she had to speak out. In addition to all the other words, there were these few that captured the attention of the world:
“I know that for someone of your eminence, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid. But even if it’s just me, like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you.”
Even for human rights advocates who have followed China for a long time, Peng’s words were deeply courageous. “I think everybody who lives in China knows that the system is corrupt, but everybody knows those people inside the system are untouchable,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “So, to level a sexual assault allegation against such a high-level person inside the system is extraordinary.”
“External propaganda, internal darkness”: China’s playbook
From the Chinese government perspective, an extraordinary allegation demanded a swift and significant response.
For decades, China has employed a fast and effective censorship machine, designed to airbrush individuals or erase sensitive comments. That machine has grown increasingly sophisticated in the age of the internet and social media.
China has turned to this playbook in several high-profile cases. When the Chinese soccer star Hao Haidong spoke out against the Communist Party in 2020, the state erased his entire online presence; when the documentary filmmaker Chai Jing released her documentary “Under the Dome,” about pollution in China, the film was taken offline four days later, along with references to Chai.
The censorship has sometimes been directed at seemingly innocuous words and images: from Winnie the Pooh — because netizens had suggested the cartoon character bore a resemblance to Chinese President Xi Jinping — to jasmine, because Chinese protesters in 2011 had adopted the phrase “Jasmine Revolution” following that year’s upheaval in Tunisia. In those cases, searches for “jasmine” and “Winnie the Pooh” (and even some of the other characters in the Pooh stories) were blocked on the internet.
Even by the strict standards of the Chinese playbook, Peng’s allegations were met with an exceptionally intense and wide-ranging response.
The New York Times and ProPublica documented the online purge. After deleting Peng’s post, censors quickly started removing all references to it — eventually censoring hundreds of related words, including Peng and Zhang’s initials and pseudonyms for them. Even the topic “tennis” was blocked on Chinese social media site Weibo. Wang said censors kept an airbrushed version of Peng’s Weibo page up to create a facade; the new version suggested there had been no censorship. In fact, all mentions of her allegations were wiped away.
“This is certainly among the most extreme cases of censorship in terms of the comprehensiveness of the blackout at home,” said Bandurski, of the China Media Project.
In Peng’s case, the “playbook” involved more than airbrushing and censorship — it also involved a war to control the Peng narrative on the international stage. Bandurski and the China Media Project analyzed that war as it unfolded. Using state media accounts, the Chinese government attempted to tamp down concerns by publishing content about Peng on non-Chinese social media sites — a strategy Bandurski described as “external propaganda, internal darkness.”
On Nov. 17, the international arm of China’s state-run television network posted a screenshot of a message Peng had supposedly sent to the head of the Women’s Tennis Association: “I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine,” the message included. But this and subsequent efforts only raised fresh concerns about Peng on uncensored social media outside of China. In the following days, employees of the Chinese state newspaper the Global Times posted photos and videos of Peng playing with her cat, at a dinner in which someone explicitly states the date and at a junior tennis match.
In December, after continued calls from the Women’s Tennis Association and others to investigate Peng’s allegations, Peng appeared in a video interview with Lianhe Zaobao, a Singaporean outlet. In the video she said she had been free to speak her mind and appeared to retract her allegations. “I have never said or written about anyone sexually assaulting me,” she said. “That’s a very important point. On the Weibo post, that’s my personal issue.”
Has it worked?
Inside China, the playbook has worked. A recent Baidu search for “Peng Shuai” found no references to her since November.
And while some advocacy groups had called for diplomatic boycotts against the Beijing Games as a response to Peng’s story, the Olympics are underway, with full fanfare. Certainly it helps that the International Olympic Committee has appeared to go along with China’s explanations — or at least not sought to investigate Peng’s allegations. Instead, IOC President Thomas Bach met with her via videoconference in November and said he plans to have dinner with her in Beijing during the Games.
But for many people watching outside of China, the response to Peng’s claims has looked clumsy and chaotic at best — and at worst a public relations disaster for China. Peng and her story are known today to millions who never knew her before, and her case has been added to the litany of concerns about China’s behavior — joining a list that includes its clampdown on civil society and political rights in Hong Kong, and the persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
“To the extent that any discussion of Peng Shuai and former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli was obliterated inside China, we can say that this was a success,” said Bandurski. “But that success was bought at the expense of international public opinion — a cost I think top leaders were willing to incur, because they saw no choice.”
These Olympics will provide a platform for advocates to continue calling attention to Peng’s case. Although athletes have been warned by the Chinese government to stay silent on human rights, some advocates have said they intend to raise awareness in other ways. Over the past weeks, activists reignited the discussion by wearing “Where is Peng Shuai?” shirts to the Australian Open.
On this and other rights issues, China is showing an increasingly defiant face. Speaking of the contrast between 2022 and the 2008 games hosted in Beijing, Human Rights Watch’s Wang said, “At that time, the Chinese government cared about presenting a more tolerable image to the West.” Now, she added, it doesn’t feel the need to cater to the West because “China feels much more confident about its governance model.”
As for Peng herself, she was last seen with former NBA star and Chinese Olympian Yao Ming and other athletes at a gathering in Shanghai. The man she accused, Zhang, surfaced last weekend in Chinese media for the first time since November, mentioned in a long list of party members Xi greeted for Chinese New Year.
What will happen to Peng Shuai? What will happen to Zhang Gaoli? Will the party investigate the allegations? It may be a long time before we know the answers.