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Tennis and Politics Intertwine in China’s Highest-Profile #MeToo Case to Date

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Tennis and Politics Intertwine in China’s Highest-Profile #MeToo Case to Date

Peng Shuai’s stunning accusation of sexual assault should be situated within a larger context where tennis can be a vehicle for politics – exposing athletes to the possibility of exploitation.

Tennis and Politics Intertwine in China’s Highest-Profile #MeToo Case to Date
Credit: Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons

In a since-deleted social media post, Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis star who was once the world’s top-ranked tennis doubles player, wrote that Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier and member of the Politburo Standing Committee, sexually assaulted her in 2018. The top official’s alleged assault led to an on-and-off relationship over three years, which Peng described as consensual yet traumatizing.

Since then, state censors have removed almost all discussion of the incident from China’s social media platforms, igniting a game of cat and mouse in which internet users devise ever more ingenious workarounds to circumvent censorship while Chinese media censors go into overdrive clamping down on them.

The charge leveled against a high-ranking Communist Party official was the first of its kind in China, where the patriarchal culture of using one’s position of power to solicit sexual favors from women persists. While state and party mouthpieces occasionally acknowledge sexual misconduct by communist leaders, it is frequently listed as one of the misdeeds of disgraced officials snared in anti-corruption campaigns, alongside “abusing of power” and “taking or seeking bribes.”

The Zhang Gaoli case is unique. The instantaneous and blanket censorship of Peng Shuai’s allegation militates against the idea that her post was staged as a prelude to Zhang’s demise.

Peng’s allegation also offers a rare glimpse into the entanglements between elite sports and Chinese politics. According to Peng, Zhang’s assault occurred following a tennis match at his invitation.

From Mao Zedong, an avid swimmer, to Xi Jinping, China’s No. 1 soccer fan, many communist leaders continued their athletic pursuits while advancing in their careers.

The fascination of Chinese leaders with sports extends beyond personal pastimes. The stigma of the label “Sick Man of Asia” struck a raw nerve among the Chinese people, prompting Mao to explicitly call for “strengthening the Chinese people’s physique” in order to wipe out the shame of the “century of humiliation” associated with the reference.

Since the PRC’s return to the Olympics games in 1984 after a three-decade absence, a good haul in gold medal counts every four years has been perceived as symbolic of China’s rise on the global stage. The political tide only slightly turned in 2015 when the nation’s anti-corruption watchdogs formally denounced “obsession over the pursuit of Olympics medals.”

The General Administration of Sports (GSA), a Mao-era government agency under the State Council in charge of overseeing the government-run elite sports training system and developing Soviet-style grand plans to advance the country’s sports ambitions, is at the crossroads of sports and politics.

The yearning for Olympic glory translated to a unique reward system and career opportunity, where retired elite athletes are promoted to sports officials of the GSA, thus entering Chinese officialdom. Among generations of GSA officials, one prominent figure is former star tennis player Liu Shuhua.  In addition to grooming the next generation of Wimbledon hopefuls, Liu, during his tenure as head of the Tianjin Tennis Management Center, was also known for handpicking personal trainers for Chinese leaders, ensuring that they received lessons from the best athletes the country had to offer. The facility became known as the ultimate venue for tennis meetings among senior officials, reviving a tradition that dated back to Wan Li, one of the Communist Party’s revolutionary elders known as the “Eight Immortals” and a famed tennis enthusiast. Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who once served as head of the newly established U.S. liaison office in Beijing, was among Wan’s tennis buddies.

As private and informal communications among elite politicians are strictly monitored and restricted, these sporting events serve as alternative venues for senior leaders to mingle and form alliances. According to state media reports, Wan frequently gave high-end tennis rackets as gifts to his proteges, including Hu Qili and Li Ruihuan, and encouraged them to participate in the sport. Both Hu and Li served as Tianjin party chiefs before securing their coveted seats at the Politburo.

Tennis was so popular among China’s highest echelons of power that hordes of junior officials crammed into tennis gyms, scrambling to master the strokes, waiting for the next chance to schmooze with their bosses on the court, and hoping that a few good games would be just impressive enough to tip the scale when they were up for that next promotion. China’s current premier, Li Keqiang, was the Communist Youth League secretary at Peking University at the time and an ambitious political newcomer who allegedly practiced the sport fervently in order to gain more face time with senior leaders. During a 2014 trip to Serbia, Li confessed that he had too much “governmental homework” to do to fit sports into his schedule as the premier. Nonetheless, he relished “watching tennis matches on TV” during valuable work breaks.

“Zhang Gaoli’s tenure as Tianjin party chief was a critical stepping stone to his position as vice premier and member of the Politburo Standing Committee. It’s also no secret that Zhang was a regular at the ‘Tianjin tennis club,’” said Pin Ho, founder of the New York-based Mingjing Media Group and a veteran Chinese politics journalist. “However, Ms. Peng’s allegations exposed the underbelly of these ostensibly high-end practice sessions.” Because these encounters between Chinese officials and their personal trainers were relatively private, elite athletes, particularly young females, became easy targets for assault and exploitation.

“You may be one of the sports’ most decorated athletes. But international prestige is useless when you are cornered, manipulated, and assaulted by communist officials with enough power to render you powerless,” Ho said.

While Peng only described in detail the sexual assault in 2018, her post also mentioned that her first time having sex with Zhang was seven years earlier, in Tianjin.

It remains to be seen how the party will respond to Peng’s allegations. The former top leader’s scandal was revealed at a politically sensitive time, as current Communist Party officials are set to discuss and pass a key historical resolution at a closed-door conclave in Beijing next week. The resolution would cement President Xi Jinping’s personal legacy and pave the way for a precedent-breaking third presidential term. Despite the censors’ best effort, Peng Shuai’s accusation was an excruciatingly jarring sound bite in the week preceding the pivotal moment.

Zhang Gaoli’s factional affiliation further complicates the picture. As a protégé of the former CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin, Zhang’s promotion across the ranks relied on blessings from the former paramount leader and Jiang’s close ally, Zeng Qinghong. Observers generally believe that the chance that Zhang will be formally held responsible is slim to none, but internal party disciplinary committees may use the incident to send a message to Xi’s remaining rivals.

“Although only the tip of the iceberg, [Peng Shuai’s #MeToo case] exposes the real life of China’s highest cadres, how their power masked their hypocrisy, and how they are excessively corrupt,” Lü Pin, an activist who founded the Chinese online forum Feminist Voices, wrote.

The ingrained patriarchal tradition of using positions in business or government to coerce sexual favors from subordinates will persist, according to a Chinese feminist scholar who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter, but “Peng Shuai demonstrated an act of rare courage that would continue to send shock waves across the nation.”

“As feminist activists continue to disrupt the patriarchal, authoritarian order, the government will likely find new ways to persecute them. Yet growing numbers of Chinese women now recognize that they deserve to be treated with dignity and are pushing back against gender discrimination, violence, and misogyny,” wrote Leta Hong Fincher in “Betraying Big Brother,” a book about Chinese feminism.