Why Peng Shuai scared the Chinese leaders
By Leta Hong Fincher,
Four years after the #MeToo movement rocked the halls of global power, one of its most politically significant cases to date is taking place in the most unlikely place: China. And not surprisingly, the government is trying to silence dissent.
Yet the Chinese Communist Party’s choreographed response to a tennis star’s sexual assault allegations backfired dramatically. Instead of crushing a scandal, it fuels the Chinese feminist movement – it could ultimately be a challenge for the party itself.
On November 2, Peng Shuai, a former Wimbledon doubles champion, accused former Chinese Deputy Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. “Like an egg hitting a rock, or a flaming moth, wooing self-destruction, I will speak the truth about you,” she wrote in a lengthy post on Weibo, the media platform popular social in China. Then she disappeared.
State censors quickly restricted searches for Ms. Peng’s name on the Chinese Internet and deleted the post, but not before it had been shared about 1,000 times. In the hours that followed, internet users logged nearly seven million searches for the post.
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Reporters began asking Ms. Peng’s whereabouts during briefings by China’s Foreign Ministry. #WhereIsPengShuai trending on Twitter. Beijing dodged for days. But then the state-controlled media released a series of bizarre images and videos purporting to show Ms. Peng unharmed: in a restaurant; cuddle a cat; sign children’s tennis balls at a teen tournament.
If Beijing thought these measures would fix things, it was sorely mistaken. So far, Ms. Peng has not made any public comment. Steve Simon, general manager of the Women’s Tennis Association, said on Wednesday that the women’s professional tennis tour would suspend all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, in response to Ms Peng’s disappearance, citing “serious doubts” that ‘she was free and safe.
Ms. Peng’s fame certainly sparked interest in her case. But his claims are also groundbreaking: They are the first to implicate such a high-ranking Chinese official, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s highest ruling body.
The upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party have been largely impenetrable to the scandal and enjoyed relative respect from much of the population. But Ms Peng’s claims raise the specter that all is not well within the elite ranks and that she may not be alone: more women could speak out. The valves could open. And the party can’t have that.
This might help explain the backlash to Ms. Peng’s claims that it was a clear attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to protect itself and its legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
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Such bossy playbook moves tend to be successful in silencing dissent. But what the party has apparently not taken into consideration is the current climate for women’s rights in China. His actions touched an already painful and gross nerve. And that’s how a national #MeToo scandal exploded into a famous international cause.
While the patriarchal nature of Chinese society is well known, Ms. Peng’s case is the rare and revealing moment that shows how all-male Chinese leaders depend on the subjugation of women for the longevity of the Communist Party.
Things only got worse under President Xi Jinping, architect of a state campaign on masculinity.
Women are seriously under-represented in national politics: there is one woman on the 25-member Politburo. Women’s representation on the 204-member Central Committee, the party’s largest political body, has declined over the past decade, to 10 now from 13 in 2012.
Wider gender inequality has also worsened. Women’s participation in the labor market fell to 60.5% in 2019, from 73% in 1990, according to the World Bank. China sits in the bottom third of all countries assessed for their gender disparities, according to the World Economic Forum.
The bleak outlook for Chinese women is particularly shocking given the preeminent role of feminism in China’s revolutionary history. Women’s empowerment was a central goal not only for activists in the May 4, 1919 movement, but throughout the communist revolution, culminating with the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Chinese leader Mao Zedong proclaimed that “women hold half the sky.” Propaganda images from the 1950s and 1960s showed smiling, muscular welders and workers working to boost industrial production.
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But today’s Communist Party seems to want women to be obedient wives and mothers. In his speech on International Women’s Day this year, Xi barely mentioned the contribution of female workers to economic development.
This is where the tinder resides that has fueled the current feminist fire around Ms. Peng’s case. It should also have informed the government’s response, since these same conditions and authoritarian excess plunged the Communist Party into a similar mess in 2015. It was at this point that Chinese authorities jailed five women activists for planning to commemorate International Women’s Day by distributing stickers against sexual harassment on public transport.
At the time, the five were almost completely unknown. But other feminists have coined the term “Feminist Five” to shine the media spotlight on imprisoned women.
Inside China, injustice reinvigorated women activists, marking the start of a major feminist movement. As internet censors scrambled to silence expressions of solidarity with the Five, the term “feminist” (“nüquan zhuyi zhe”) itself became a sensitive keyword.
Since then, organized feminist activists have exploited the wide discontent felt by Chinese women and developed a level of influence very unusual for any social movement in China.
The government has responded by shutting down centers for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, disabling feminist social media accounts and tightening control over gender studies classes. Government crackdown on the feminist organization escalated earlier this year. #MeToo activist Sophia Huang Xueqin was reportedly arrested on charges of “inciting the subversion of state power”.
It is telling, however, that neither his case nor the few other #MeToo cases that have crossed state media censorship – like the rape allegation against an executive at tech giant Alibaba – have had the explosive impact of that of Ms. Peng.
This is because none have potentially so huge implications for the future of the Chinese Communist Party. The party derives its legitimacy in part from its ability to control and refine (all) narratives, through censorship and other authoritarian means. But with Ms. Peng, he lost that control. If more women are inspired and able to speak up, the party might not be able to get it back.
Sports celebrities such as Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova have tweeted their support for Ms Peng. The Biden administration called on Beijing to offer “verifiable proof” that Ms. Peng is safe.
True, there is always a chance the government will take even tougher measures to crush the #MeToo movement.
The party leadership is certainly scared. Acknowledging Ms. Peng’s assault allegations could delegitimize her grip on power. Staying the course could infuriate more people, leading them to activism.
Chinese feminists tweeted pictures of Ms. Peng projected on the walls, along with slogans such as “Chinese women are breaking the silence” and “The Voiceless Rise Up!”
Their words echo those of the feminist revolutionary Qiu Jin at the beginning of the 20th century: “Arise, rise up, Chinese women, rise up! … Chinese women will get rid of their chains and stand up with passion, ”she wrote. “They will step onto the stage of the new world, where the heavens have mandated them to consolidate the nation.”
A few years later, Chinese women and men fighting for greater freedoms helped overthrow the last imperial dynasty.