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What Peng Shuai’s Story Tells Us About #MeToo in China

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What Peng Shuai’s Story Tells Us About #MeToo in China

Peng’s story is an example of a woman sharing her story and demanding justice. That is what has kept #MeToo growing strong since the beginning, despite heavy censorship.

What Peng Shuai’s Story Tells Us About #MeToo in China

Supporters hold banners as they wait for of Zhou Xiaoxuan outside at a courthouse where Zhou appeared in a sexual harassment case in Beijing on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

On November 2, in a late-night Weibo post, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai told a shocking tale of sexual assault and coercion, followed by a years-long affair with Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier and member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee.

Peng’s disclosure of being sexually abused by Zhang is crucial. Although only the tip of the iceberg, it exposes the real life of China’s highest cadres, how their power masked their hypocrisy, and how they are excessively corrupt – things that could only have been imagined before, but are now put on the stage for all to see. Peng’s disclosure was soon deleted and censored in China. But the censorship only helps to reveal the fear of China’s top leaders, silencing voices in seconds while many people bear witness.

Why did people find Peng’s story so real? Because everyone assumes that it must be true. In fact, the cadres have always been so rotten and degenerate; they have always exploited women, but it has been hidden in the dark. So “speaking up” is all the more important.

Peng’s disclosure is part of the #MeToo movement in China, and also more than that. I can’t praise #MeToo enough. Its momentum has garnered attention, raised consciousness, and driven actions for change in the past three years. Its impact is unprecedented. But the impact does not solely stem from the powerful positions of those being accused. The movement is not a Chinese version of David-vs.-Goliath, with many digitally-savvy Davids confronting a handful of mighty Goliaths.

What stands at the core of this battle is the courage of the survivors who speak up and powerfully shake many others in the society. Their disclosures have created a ripple effect, inspiring more and more survivors to stand up and speak up compellingly. #MeToo challenges what used to be considered as “normal,” especially in terms of what can be said and what experiences and relationships are acceptable. Although naming and speaking about the sexual violence one has experienced is extremely difficult, these actions forcefully confront things that are hidden in daily language. The survivors’ experiences serve as testimony, proclaiming: These things are wrong, and unacceptable.

#MeToo as a social movement is mostly spontaneous. In China, since July 2018, one survivor after another has bravely stood up to tell their stories, just like Peng Shuai did. This is the core of the movement. #MeToo in China also depends on many other women voluntarily helping each other. These two trends have sustained the movement so far. #MeToo’s unstoppable spread breaks through layers of censorship to rock the world.

Peng’s story is an example of another “imperfect victim” sharing her story. Although shackled by patriarchal norms and language, and with enormous fear, Peng is struggling to speak, to share, and to name her experience. She has tremendous shame and guilt, even using the word “love” to describe her relationship with Zhang – a patriarchal toxin that tames any survivor in an abusive sexual relationship. Yet, what is striking is that she knows deep in her heart that all she has experienced is unjust. She knows she was abused, though there is no ready-made language for her to name it. She has the deep desire to search for justice that has not yet come.

Peng’s narrative is highly consistent with many other #MeToo stories. We must recognize and acknowledge the daunting task they undertook: Each individual works to shake society out of the unspeakability and normalization of sexual violence. I understand why Peng blamed herself, why she said Zhang was a good guy, why she mentioned love. I also truly sympathize with her in her shame and anger. Society must acknowledge that nobody should be forced into such a situation, and women have always known this.

In fact, the imperfection of Peng’s account is very important in itself. It is supposed to highlight a broken part of this society in the first place. Those stories that are well told are sometimes propaganda, sometimes lies, and at the very least are divorced from the truth of women’s lived experience. Yet all the rational perfectionists are not as brave as Peng Shuai. Everyone is afraid. Everyone knows that for anyone who comes forward, there will be a huge price to pay, endless arguing and explanations, and complete loneliness in the journey. The fact that anyone still dares to speak up is what is most remarkable.

One can start to understand #MeToo by asking why there is always someone coming forward, despite the personal costs. Women speak out, one by one, based on the irrepressible demand for justice that is not yet available. Yet it is very difficult to raise such consciousness in full isolation. Women are divided and controlled by patriarchy, making it hard to resist. They need to hear indirect or direct echoes from others, and see other women’s examples. Of course, Peng Shuai is not a member of the organized #MeToo movement, but she is now among the ranks of women connected through such echoes and demonstrations.

Everything is under surveillance and can be censored before it is even sent out. It is easy to imagine that many #MeToo voices cannot be heard at all. The hurdles to speaking up today are very high, but #MeToo is continuously breaking through the wall of censorship. Its power comes from the survivors’ accusations of blood and tears. Their stories have touched and shaken so many that people cannot stop talking about it, and they would like to spread information online on behalf of the censored. Precisely by relying on this spontaneous tactic of more people joining in, eventually everyone heard the voices of survivors and censorship became ineffective.

As for the famous men accused so far – like Zhang Gaoli, Kris Wu, Zhu Jun, Liu Qiangdong – of course it’s not that #MeToo is exposing them alone. They are only the tip of the iceberg that #MeToo can expose to the public. So let’s also “thank” them – it is their fame that brings the effect of #MeToo to more places. Although the mass media have almost no coverage of these cases, and on social media there are too many deletions, the effect of #MeToo is still rising, constantly breaking the barriers for what can be spoken.

But don’t consume these stories as “celebrity gossip.” Peng’s story is not about an affair; it is about violence. The enormous social structure normalizes violence and sometimes makes victims seem like they were acting voluntarily. This structure leaves survivors no space to tell their truth. It is irresponsible to talk about gender without bringing up power relations.

It is truly heartbreaking to see that Peng Shuai, a most outstanding and independent Chinese woman, still had this experience. It’s a lesson for us: Rights do not come with your career or the uplifting of your economic status. Rights come because you fight for them.

#MeToo is supposed to be a troublemaker. In such a “harmonious society” like China, it is crucially important that someone makes trouble, if only to prove that this society has not died yet. #MeToo is heavily regulated on social media platform through limitations on clicks and data; the movement is always warned and dismissed. It nevertheless has witnessed many new opportunities for creating connections among people as the next survivor comes forward – and there is always a next survivor.

#MeToo’s ever-increasing effect also means escalating crises. Each time, everyone is so worried about the safety of the survivors. Each time, it is more obvious that #MeToo is becoming a target. But I will not predict a final confrontation. There will be no such thing as a final moment, because the crackdown has continued and expanded. Also, do not expect #MeToo to become a turning point for the essential change of society.

#MeToo is dramatic and turbulent. There is no linear direction or target destination for #MeToo. Additionally, the movement has always been incredibly fragile. Despite its uncertainty and unpromising nature, women still contribute to the movement – that is their moral virtue. Meanwhile, there will always be the next person coming forward in ways that we can’t even imagine.

Many people’s first reaction to Peng Shuai’s accusation is fear: They are terrified that the authorities’ revenge will impact the whole internet. I don’t have this fear, because the “door” provided by social media is constantly being closed. Since worry and fear are now usual for our daily life, I would rather focus on the other side.

It is remarkable to see how women hold open the limited, remaining space and tear apart new holes. This deserves all our praise. In this process, more and more people have awakened and connected with each other, making their short lives meaningful. This is the most valuable part of #MeToo. The fight for women’s rights doesn’t need to undertake any bigger responsibility, but it has already done so.

As for Peng Shuai, I believe in her, too. Women are tough. She will survive.

This article was originally posted on Medium and has been republished here with the author’s permission. It was translated from the original Chinese by Sara Liao, Ruihan, and Qiqi.