Yaxue Cao, December 1, 2021
At 10:07 pm on November 2nd, Peng Shuai, the 35-year-old Chinese tennis star, posted an unbroken paragraph of 1,900 words on her Weibo account revealing her relationship with Zhang Gaoli, former member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and Vice Premier. It was a tumultuous eruption of anger, shame, fear, and a certain determination.
According to Peng Shuai’s account (see appendix for a full translation), Zhang Gaoli first asked to have sex with her “more than ten years ago,” that is, when she was around 25 years old, an ascending professional tennis player defeating some of the world’s top-ranked players. At the time, she trained at the Tianjin Tennis Center, and Zhang Gaoli was the Communist Party Secretary of Tianjin, one of the four municipalities directly administered by the central government. He was 65, not only the top leader of Tianjin, but also a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, father of a son and an adopted daughter and grandfather of at least three.
Seven years ago, that is, around 2014-2015, they began a sexual relationship. Around that time, Peng Shuai had become the world No.1 in doubles, having won among others Wimbledon, the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association), and French Open championships. By then, Zhang Gaoli was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee. At some point, he stopped contacting her. She was hurt by his sudden “disappearance” and buried her feelings deep.
Five years ago in January 2017, Peng Shuai was seen wearing a necklace with a Z pendant during the Australian Open in Melbourne.
Zhang Gaoli retired in late 2017 and has been living, presumably, in Zhongnanhai. Three years ago, he sought Peng Shuai out again. The pretext for the first reunion was playing tennis. She went. Afterwards, he and his wife took Peng Shuai to their home. He took her to a room and wanted to have sex with her. She didn’t expect anything like that. She said she was scared and didn’t know what to do. She cried for hours rejecting his demand. She finally gave in, with the wife keeping watch in the house for security.
By Peng Shuai’s account, the relationship carried on for the last three years, with her now being 35 and Zhang 75. While she said she had a good time with Zhang alone, she was tormented. She said she felt insulted at every turn by Zhang’s wife. She was asked to keep the relationship a secret, even from her mother who dropped her off at the Church of the Savior cathedral (西什库天主堂), two blocks away from the south entrance of Zhongnanhai where Peng Shuai would be picked up by Zhang’s chauffeur. She was tormented by her secret life, felt deeply ashamed of herself, and might have had suicidal thoughts. She yearned for a simpler life.
A fierce argument erupted between Peng Shuai and Zhang Gaoli on October 30 but she didn’t elaborate. Inferring from her account, it probably had to do with her desire to have mingfen (名分) – an appropriate recognition of her relationship with Zhang. Zhang apparently started denying things, along the line of how the relationship started and his responsibility. Peng said Zhang constantly feared that she might have kept evidence of their relationship and would use it to ensnare him. But she said she has none except her own account which she posted on the evening of November 2, after Zhang called earlier that day and cancelled their planned meeting to talk following the big argument. She was enraged, hurt, feeling used and abandoned again. She let out her secret and her feelings in this unbroken monologue, knowing what she was doing could be an act of self-destruction.
Her Weibo post was censored in about 30 minutes, and she herself disappeared, until people all over the world were asking: Where Is Peng Shuai? Chris Evert, Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, and pretty much the entire international tennis community, expressed concerns for her safety and wellbeing, as did human rights organizations, governments, and the United Nations. Then, despite days of no answer to WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon’s calls and emails to Peng Shuai, all of a sudden on November 17, CGTN, China’s state-owned TV station in the heart of Washington, D.C., released an email purportedly from Peng in which she said she was “fine and appears to walk back her sexual allegations.” Then, Peng Shuai made a succession of appearances. First CGTN reporter Shen Shiwei posted photos of a cheerful Peng Shuai with a roomful of stuffed animals (Fri. Nov.19), dining with her coach and friends (Sat. Nov.20), making an appearance at a youth tennis final and signing autographs for kids (Sun. Nov.21), and a virtual meeting with the IOC (International Olympic Committee) President Thomas Bach (Sun. Nov.21).
The international community has demanded “verifiable” evidence of Peng Shuai’s whereabouts and wellbeing, and a “transparent” investigation into the allegations she made. The UK, UN, US, and EU all made similar statements.
Chinese media personalities on Twitter are furious that the rest of the world is not convinced that Peng Shuai is free, happy, just fine, as she appeared to be in that flurry of appearances.
Over the past week or so, the whirlwind around Peng Shuai seems to have died down. The questions remain: What has happened to Peng Shuai, and what will happen to her? I would like to share a few thoughts.
The first thing we need to understand is that, for the Chinese Communist Party, Peng Shuai’s revelation, the timing of it, and the quick and overwhelming reaction from outside of China is an unexpected political disaster. In less than 100 days, China will host the 2022 Winter Olympics. If the 2008 Summer Olympics was China’s grand debut on the world stage as a great power, the coming Olympics will be a grand glorification of the CCP, Xi Jinping, and free PR for China’s global agenda. Given the fact that millions of Uyghurs have been placed in concentration camps and subjected to forced labor in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China, that freedoms in Hong Kong have been in freefall over the last couple of years, and that repression inside China has continued to worsen, the 2022 Winter Olympics has been met with persistent calls for boycott. Recently, the UK, the U.S., Canada, Australia and some EU member countries have been weighing a diplomatic boycott. I’m sure that China is working overtime to minimize the impact of major countries carrying out diplomatic boycotts. For Xi Jinping who sees the sports event as a scene of “hundreds of states paying respect to China,” Peng Shuai’s revelation and its aftermath could not have come at a worse time. We have seen just how quickly and massively China responded to stop it.
Think like the CCP for a minute. In the eyes of the Party, the Peng Shuai incident occurred at the wrong time and in the wrong manner, which hurt China’s plans for the winter Olympics, damaged China’s image, and caused a negative global response. To the Party, she has committed a grave political blunder. By now, there must have been scores of government officials, sports administrators, coaches, friends, family members, and perhaps even national security agents, who have spoken to her, or threatened her, convincing her of what a terrible mistake she has made to the detriment of the country.
To deal with a political disaster such as the Peng Shuai incident, the CCP’s standard modus operandi is suppression and cover up. From the timeline, it looks like China’s initial act in response to the international outcry was an email purportedly from Peng Shuai to Steve Simon, of the WTA published by CGTN on November 17, two weeks after Peng Shuai posted her revelation on Weibo:
This “email” could have been written by anyone. Regardless who wrote it, under what circumstances, or whether it reflects Peng Shuai’s true thoughts, it already indicated how China is handling the Peng Shuai incident: deny the sexual allegations Peng Shuai made, state that she’s safe and sound, and warn the WTA from ever speaking about Peng Shuai without her permission. Such is the purpose of this “email.”
On November 25, a Chinese businessman named Ding Li (丁力) who claimed to be Peng’s friend, posted on Twitter a screenshot of another “email” from Peng Shuai to Steve Simon, this time in Chinese and dated Nov. 22, in which she said the WTA is “not allowed to hype my privacy.” In the same tweet, he also demanded, “We need Simon to give us an explanation: Why has he disregarded Peng Shuai’s email! Why has he not replied to her?”
China has taken aim at the WTA as the main target of its wrath and attack. And this is why: the WTA is not like the NBA.
For those who are familiar with China’s human rights record, these emails and worn-out tactics are familiar. Let me tell you a few similar stories.
In mid-2016, the American Bar Association (ABA) announced the selection of Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Yu (王宇) as the recipient of its inaugural International Human Rights Award. Wang Yu and her husband were among the twenty or so human rights lawyers arrested during what is known as the “709 Crackdown” in July 2015. To stop Wang Yu, and Chinese human rights lawyers in general, from receiving international honors and support, China forced Wang Yu to denounce the award on state TV. She was taken from prison to an upscale restaurant in downtown Tianjin, where she was seated in its backyard against the backdrop of a large, sun-drenched green lawn and said to the camera: “My attitude to this award is that I do not recognize it, nor agree with it, nor accept it. As far as I’m concerned, the purpose of giving me this prize is to use me to denigrate the Chinese government. I’m a Chinese national, I only accept the guidance of the Chinese government. I do not accept it now, nor will I accept it in the future.”
That was not all. Two lawyers in Tianjin claiming to represent Wang Yu wrote a letter to the ABA. “We solemnly notify the American Bar Association: Wang Yu has repeatedly and publicly indicated that she does not recognize, nor agree with, nor accept a ‘human rights award’ by an overseas entity or organization. If you forcefully confer this award to Ms. Wang Yu, you are infringing on Ms. Wang Yu’s reputation, and must immediately cease and desist. Ms. Wang Yu will reserve the right to seek legal action against such infringement.”
The ABA did not cease and desist. The award ceremony was held during its 2016 annual conference in San Francisco in August. I and a group of friends were there to celebrate Wang Yu in her absence. ABA officials showed me the actual letter, and could not possibly believe it represented Wang Yu’s true intent.
After she was released, I asked Wang Yu about this episode. She said she didn’t know who those two lawyers were, and she had never asked any lawyer to write a letter to the ABA on her behalf. She agreed to give the TV interview after a difficult debate with herself. It was the deal the government offered her: she denounced the award in exchange for release — she was sick at heart worrying for her teenage son. Her statement on TV had been handed to her by her minders and she rehearsed with them over and over again.
As promised, the Chinese government released Wang Yu and her husband, also a human rights lawyer. But for an entire year after their release, they were placed under house arrest in an apartment in Ulanhot, Inner Mongolia, surveilled by an array of cameras outside their door, along the stairs, and on the street. They were not allowed to see friends or leave that city, plainclothes police followed them everywhere they went when they shopped for groceries or took walks. Both have been disbarred since their return to their home in Beijing in 2017. Wang Yu is one of the recipients of the State Department’s 2021 International Women’s Courage Award.
Another example. Xie Yang (谢阳) was a human rights lawyer from Hunan province who was also arrested during the “709 Crackdown” in 2015. In early 2017, he revealed to his lawyers the details of his torture while still in detention, and the international media responded with swift and widespread coverage. In late February 2017, eleven ambassadors in Beijing wrote a letter to the Chinese authorities, expressing “growing concern over recent claims of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in cases concerning detained human rights lawyers and other human rights defenders,” and calling on the Chinese government “to investigate reports of torture against human rights lawyers.”
What was China’s reaction? First, Chinese state media launched an all-out campaign accusing Xie Yang’s wife and his lawyers of fabricating his torture, while having a prosecutor from Hunan discuss on TV the provincial procuratorate’s “independent investigation” and its findings: no torture had ever happened, and Xie Yang had had good and sufficient sleep and was healthy. Then the authorities forced Xie Yang to deny torture on national TV and admit guilt for “inciting subversion of state power” during his trial. After being released from prison, Xie Yang too confirmed to me that his statement during the trial was prepared by his minders and rehearsed. In exchange, the government promised him that he would be able to continue to practice, but last year they permanently revoked his license.
Another example. Gui Minhai (桂民海) is a naturalized Swedish national who for years ran a book publishing business in Hong Kong. In 2015, he was kidnapped in Thailand by Chinese agents and brought back to China. Four other employees of Causeway Bay Books were also kidnapped and taken to China. The incident solicited undying outcry and protest in Hong Kong and around the world. A few months later, Gui Minhai appeared on CCTV, China’s central state TV, saying that he voluntarily returned to China to turn himself in for a car accident before, and “I don’t want any individual or organization to interfere with the issue of my returning to China, and I certainly oppose any malicious hype of it.”
In early 2018, Gui was released. But three weeks later he was arrested again on a high speed train to Beijing, in the company of two Swedish diplomats. Their plan was to take Gui Minhai back to Sweden. Several days later, Gui Minhai again appeared on Chinese TV. “I’ve learned that Sweden did a lot of hype about me. I wrote a letter to the Swedish ambassador in Beijing, telling them that I do not want them to continue to hype it… Now looking back, I have probably become a piece on the Swedish’s chess board.”
He wrote letters! He demanded that the hype cease! He did not want to be used as a tool by foreigners for malicious purposes! I don’t think we need to wait until Mr. Gui is freed to confirm the truth. In any case, we will have to wait for a very long time. In February 2020, Gui Minhai was tried and sentenced to 10 years in prison for “illegally providing intelligence overseas.” Not only that, the court claimed that Gui had given up his Swedish citizenship and reinstated his Chinese one!
I can go on citing more examples, but the pattern is clear. When faced with wide international attention on an event that reflects poorly on China, China’s default practice is to (1) deny it; (2) suppress discussions of it using a scorched-earth approach that leaves no stone unturned; (3) accuse the international community of “hyping” the event to denigrate China.
Peng Shuai’s case is no different, as is already abundantly clear. “I hope some people stop the deliberate and malicious hype, not to mention politicizing the issue,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular press conference in Beijing on November 23.
Now, Peng Shuai has not gone on Chinese TV to deny the allegations she made and condemn the international community for using her to attack China, but a friend of mine reminded me that she has – “her virtual meeting with the IOC officials is the equivalent of a CCTV appearance.” My friend is right. If China can get the IOC to do the job, it doesn’t need CCTV, and having the IOC do it is infinitely better! “She explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time,” the IOC statement reads, and so, no more concerns.
We have not heard, and will not hear, from Chinese tennis players, or coaches for that matter, expressing solidarity with Peng Shuai. By now, they — each one of them — would have been warned by the Chinese government not to, or face consequences. As for the Chinese tennis organizations, they are government instruments to begin with, and they will carry out orders without fail.
It is said that China’s National Tennis Training Center has already taken Peng Shuai’s photos off the wall [I have not been able to confirm it], and that mentioning Peng Shuai’s name on Weibo will cause the account to be suspended for 30 days. If true, the erasure is already underway.
Does Peng Shuai know about the outpouring global support for her? Probably not. Keeping her in dark, isolating her from the news makes it easier to control and manipulate her, and it would be in character for the Chinese government as a wide range of past cases have indicated.
Peng Shuai will not be let free any time soon, if ever. The Chinese government doesn’t have to put her in jail in order to imprison her. Her home can be turned into a prison with surveillance, by both minders and cameras. It’s unlikely they will let her leave China to play tennis again; if they do, she will be sealed off by minders. The WTA or any of her tennis friends outside of China will not be able to speak to her freely. She’s 35 years old, China will likely force her to retire and make her disappear from public view. It’s called “social death.” My friend opined: this may be the best outcome Peng Shuai gets; it could be much worse.
Whether she understands her situation or not, whatever her own will may be, she will have little choice but to say what is put in her mouth, and to do what she is asked to do, to maintain the course of suppress-and-erase that the state dictates.
You may have noticed that I’ve said little about Zhang Gaoli. Suffice to say that, whatever Xi Jinping does or does not do about Zhang Gaoli, it will not be for the good of Peng Shuai.
Finally, a few words for the international tennis community and governments: you can demand “verifiable” evidence of Peng Shuai’s whereabouts and wellbeing, but you will never get it. You can demand a “transparent” investigation into the allegations she made, but let’s not kid ourselves. We have a pandemic that originated in China raging for nearly two years now, and we can’t even get China to work on a proper investigation. What are the chances we will get a proper investigation into Peng Shuai’s allegations?
When dealing with China, we are not doing anything if all we do is appeal to the communist regime to do the right thing and move on to the next day; we are only beginning to do something when we start setting benchmarks, exploring the leverage we have and applying it to confront China.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Find her on Twitter @YaxueCao.