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Chinese tennis star’s sexual assault allegation against former top leader prompts online blackout

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai during a match at the 2014 Connecticut Open. (David Hahn/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images)
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A rare #MeToo allegation against a retired top Chinese official has sent shock waves through China, with censors scrambling to delete even vague online references.

A screenshot is circulating of what appeared to be a post late Tuesday on Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s verified Weibo microblog, alleging that former vice premier Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted her before she agreed to begin a years-long affair with him.

A public sexual assault allegation against a senior Chinese official is virtually unheard of in a country where officials guard their personal lives closely.

The post was not visible on Peng’s Weibo account on Wednesday and The Washington Post was not able to confirm its authenticity. Signs of vigorous online censorship were evident, including a block on Weibo searches for Peng’s account and the suspension of comments on her other posts.

“This is pretty explosive,” said Leta Hong Fincher, author of “Betraying Big Brother,” a book about feminism in China. “This is precisely why the feminism movement is seen as a threat to the Communist government.”

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Peng, 35, did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. China’s State Council Information Office did not reply to a faxed request to make Zhang available for interview. Zhang was born in November 1946, according to official profiles, which makes him either 74 or 75.

The lengthy accusation said that around three years ago, following Zhang’s retirement, he and his wife invited Peng over for a meal. Zhang then pressured Peng to have sex, it said.

“That afternoon I didn’t agree at first and kept crying,” the post said.

The post said Peng eventually agreed to an affair with Zhang, but that she was angered about his insistence on keeping their relationship secret. It added that he canceled a meeting with her on Tuesday to discuss her grievances.

“I know I can’t say it all clearly, and that there’s no use in saying it,” the post said. “But I still want to say it.”

Feminist activists hailed Peng’s decision to publicly accuse a senior official as an important moment for the country’s #MeToo movement, and a sign that Chinese women were no longer accepting sexist behavior that was previously seen as the norm.

China’s #MeToo movement has faced obstacles, with officials arresting feminist activists, wary that they could fan public dissatisfaction against the government. The men accused in early #MeToo cases in China included university professors and a TV host.

This year, the movement has gained momentum. Political winds have shifted, with China’s top leaders calling for the country’s wealthy to be held responsible for their actions and to serve as models of moral conduct.

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In July, Beijing police detained Chinese Canadian pop star Kris Wu after multiple young women publicly alleged that he sexually assaulted them. Wu, who denied the accusations, is one of the most prominent figures in China to have faced consequences in a #MeToo case.

Then in August, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba fired a male executive after a female employee publicly alleged that he entered her hotel room when she was heavily intoxicated and sexually assaulted her.

The Wu and Alibaba cases were notable in that censors allowed widespread discussion of them online. State media weighed in with criticism of the accused men, and both incidents were among the top-read topics on Chinese social media.

That was not the case for Peng. Her post has been met with a massive online blackout, a sign that Beijing’s new openness to #MeToo scrutiny doesn’t extend to top officials.

“We are all very nervous about what will happen to her,” said Lu Pin, a U.S.-based Chinese feminist campaigner who worked in China until 2015, when the government detained five of her colleagues. “At the same time, we feel this is something very important that has happened.”

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No Chinese news outlets in China’s mainland were covering Peng’s allegations on Wednesday, and searches about the incident on Chinese social media platforms brought up no hits. Still, Internet users were commenting in coded terms, sometimes using words that sounded similar to Peng’s and Zhang’s names.

On Weibo on Wednesday afternoon, it was not possible to publish posts containing the names Zhang Gaoli and Peng Shuai, even without reference to the allegations. An alert would pop up saying the post violated “relevant laws and regulations.” Weibo did not respond to a request for comment.

Peng’s Weibo account could no longer be found through the site’s search engine, though the account still exists. Commenting on her old posts has been disabled.

Commenting was also broadly disabled Wednesday on several sports news forums, including state broadcaster CCTV’s sports Weibo account, which has 23.8 million followers.

Peng became the first Chinese tennis player to be ranked No. 1 in doubles in the Women’s Tennis Association in 2014. She and her Taiwanese tennis partner Hsieh Su-wei won the Wimbledon doubles title in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.

Zhang was China’s vice premier from 2013 to 2018, overseeing projects including the Three Gorges Dam, food safety and international investment. He had previously served as the chief of port city Tianjin, where he first met Peng, according to the Weibo post.

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