Tennis star Peng Shuai is casting international light on China’s #MeToo movement

December 4, 2021
Women's Tennis Association suspends tournaments in China over concerns about player Peng Shuai


International concern over the disappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has cast a spotlight on sexual assault allegations in Chinese society — but experts say it’s also shown just how desperate the Chinese government is to shut down the country’s #MeToo movement.

“It’s awkward and an embarrassment and a total failure,” said Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch.

This week, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) announced it would suspend its operations inside China and Hong Kong. In a statement, the WTA said the situation involving Peng continues to raise serious concern.

​​”The response to those concerns has so far fallen short,” the statement read. 

In early November, Peng accused retired Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of pressuring her into having sex.

LISTEN | Yaqiu Wang explains how the Chinese government is cracking down on the #MeToo movement:

8:26How the Chinese government is cracking down on the country’s #MeToo movement

Her story is by no means a isolated incident. One of the country’s most famous billionaires, Richard Liu, was arrested following a rape allegation in 2018, but never charged. Zhu Jun, a news anchor and a household name in China, was accused of sexually assaulting an intern.

Wang says Peng’s case will act as an inspiration to many women who were afraid to speak out.

“People say, ‘Wow, she knows the consequences and she has so much to lose by making the allegation, but she’s still doing it,'” Yaqiu Wang told CBC Radio’s Day 6. “So people feel inspired by her.”

Social media allegations

Peng made the allegations on Chinese social media website Weibo in early November. The post was only up for about 20 minutes, but it quickly went viral.

Government censors took the post down and Peng went missing. After weeks of pressure, state media released videos and photos of Peng out for dinner and meeting fans at a tennis tournament, but the outcry hasn’t relented. And the widely held assumption is that Peng is still not free to speak or travel.

While some women in China may have been inspired by her decision to come forward, others may be wary after seeing how an internationally-connected star athlete can be shut down.

“People feel maybe the government has come with such force to suppress her, so maybe I should step back,” said Wang.

Shuai signs tennis balls at a junior event in Beijing on Sunday. According to the International Olympic Committee, Shuai is safe and living in her Beijing home after disappearing from public view Nov. 2, after she alleged a sexual assault against a former leading Communist Party official. (Twitter/@qingqingparis)

Beijing has been trying to get control of the narrative since Peng first posted her allegations on social media. Last week, a state-run news agency published a fierce editorial lashing back at the WTA. It said the tennis association was “setting a bad example for the entire sporting world.”

Olympics looming

Chinese watchers say the allegations come at a particularly sensitive time for the Chinese government. Jia Wang, interim director of the China Institute at the University of Calgary, says the government is worried about its international reputation with the Beijing Olympics just around the corner.

“This is going to be a black eye,” she said in an interview. “I think that’s why the government is trying very hard to clamp down and control it. 

“But I have to say they’re not doing a very good job, and it appeared quite clumsy how the situation has been managed.”

Human Rights Watch says, like every country in the world, China is grappling with its own #MeToo movement, but it’s ability to censor social media and pressure alleged victims makes it a uniquely difficult problem to gauge.

And it’s not just social media censorship the government uses to pressure people who do come forward.

“They can tell you, if you keep doing that you’re going to be fired from your job, or your family will be harassed or, you know, be careful [because] you can go to jail if you keep doing that,” said Yaqiu Wang.

The International Olympic Committee says it has been able to secure two phone calls with Peng. In a statement after the first call, IOC president Thomas Bach said Peng appeared to be “doing fine” and that she seems to be at her home. But the IOC also claimed the tennis star “would like to have her privacy respected.”

WATCH | Tournaments in China suspended over Peng Shuai, says Women’s Tennis Association: 

WTA suspends tournaments in China over safety concerns for Peng Shuai

The Women’s Tennis Association is making a costly move to suspend all of its tournaments in China because of concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai. The tennis player dropped out of public view after she accused a high-ranking Chinese government official of sexual assault on social media. 2:04

Fear of further backlash

But for all the effort to keep the story contained, Peng’s international status has kept her situation in the public eye in China and around the world.

Tennis star Novak Djokovic said this week he fully supports the WTA’s decision to suspend its tournaments in China.

“We don’t have enough information about Shuai Peng and her well-being, and her health is of the utmost importance for the tennis community,” said Djokovic.

And experts say that international spotlight will increase the pressure on China’s government. That said, very few expect that pressure to change how the Chinese state views the #MeToo movement.

“The Chinese government doesn’t like any independent voice — any independent activism because the Chinese government fundamentally sees citizen autonomy as a threat to its rule,” said Yaqiu Wang from Human Rights Watch.

Jia Wang agrees and says the international attention may well have an impact, but it may not be the impact people in the West were hoping for.

“It may actually cause some further tightening of controls of social movement and social media in China,” she said.


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