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From the file

China’s missing tennis player | In November, athlete Peng Shuai accused a senior Chinese politician of sexual assault. Then, she vanished. Poppy Sebag-Montefiore investigates her disappearance – and the silencing of China’s #MeToo movement

China’s missing tennis player

China’s missing tennis player

In November, athlete Peng Shuai accused a senior Chinese politician of sexual assault. Then, she vanished. Poppy Sebag-Montefiore investigates her disappearance – and the silencing of China’s #MeToo movement

Why this story?

As the world waited for news of Novak Djokovic’s unvaccinated purgatory in an Australian hotel, another story concerning a tennis player missing from the Australian Open fell out of focus. That of Peng Shuai, a former world No.1, 36 years old, who went missing after she accused one of China’s most senior Communist party leaders of sexual assault.

Seen only in staged meetings since she posted her allegation online, her disappearance from Chinese public life – and from global interest and concern – has been swift. In January, Australian Open officials called the police on protesters who appeared at Melbourne Park in T-shirts and carrying a banner bearing the words “Where is Peng Shuai?” In this episode of the Slow Newscast, Poppy Sebag-Montefiore tries to answer that simple question: where is she, and why was she silenced? Basia Cummings, Editor


Transcript

[Clip: tennis balls being hit]

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: On 2 November last year, just after 10pm at night, one of China’s top tennis players posted something on her social media account that grabbed the attention of the world. 

Actor reading Peng Shuai’s post: “About three years ago, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you and your wife Kang Jie, took me with you to your home. You then took me to your room, and like what happened in Tianjin over ten years ago, you wanted to have sex with me.” 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Peng Shuai described being sexually abused by the former number three in the Chinese Communist Party, one of the most powerful men in China.  

Actor: “That afternoon I originally did not agree and cried the whole time… I was afraid and panicked… I agreed… yes, we had sex.”

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: 20 minutes later her post had disappeared – and soon we discovered – so had she.   

By the next day, the story made headlines around the world. 

If a former tennis world champion – if any woman – had alleged sexual abuse by a such a senior politician in the UK, or in the US, it would’ve been a big story. 

The woman would have been heard, the man, we’d hope, investigated.

But that’s not how it works in China. 

Leta Hong Fincher: She knew that she was going to get in trouble for posting it. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Why was this post seen as such a threat to China’s Communist Party that Peng Shuai had to be silenced?

I’m Poppy Sebag-Montefiore and this is the Slow NewsCast: China’s Missing Tennis Player. 

***

Peng Shuai: I love tennis, I just want to be on the court, and the sweat, fight… I just want to be happy on the court.

[Clip: Peng Shuai laughing]

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: What you can hear is Peng Shuai being interviewed at the Australian Open in 2018. I’ve watched quite a few videos of Peng Shuai from before 2021. She’s relaxed in front of the camera, and giggly.

Interviewer: Can you please look at the camera?

Peng Shuai: Okay.

[Clip: Peng Shuai laughing]

Interviewer: And just say, happy? Just the word?

Peng Shuai: Happy.

[Clip: Peng Shuai laughing with the interviewer]

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Peng Shuai is the only tennis player in China to have been ranked world number 1 – in her case for women’s doubles. She’s won around 24 titles.

It’s not easy to find out much about Peng Shuai’s life. 

But there’s enough to build a picture of her – as someone who carved out independence for herself, at a young age, in both her family, and in a strictly controlled state sports environment. 

Her father was a policeman, her uncle a tennis coach. He introduced her to the sport aged 8.  

When she was 13, it was discovered that she had a congenital heart problem and against her parent’s advice, she decided to have surgery so that she could keep competing. 

She grew up inside China’s state sports system. Another Chinese tennis star, Li Na, published an autobiography in which she described it as ‘repressive’, the tennis coaching style: ‘inhumane, but also very effective.’ 

In 2008, when she was 22, Peng Shuai was given the option to leave China’s state sport system. It would be risky – after a lifetime of having everything taken care of – she’d have to fund her own career – pay her coaches out of her winnings. She went for it, and she succeeded.  

She’s earned a total of around $10 million, of which, it’s estimated around $2.5 million belongs to her. 

[Clip: Crowd clapping]

Wimbledon official: Quiet please. Play. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Here she is on her way to winning Wimbledon in 2013.

Commentator: Shuai who was dumped out of the early stages of the ladies’ singles, appears to be thriving on the doubles circuit, her confidence at the net an instrumental part of her game, was repeating the rewards for her and her partner. 

[Clip: Actuality from tennis match]

***

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Let’s go  back to that late night in early November, when Peng Shuai pressed send on that now famous post. 

Actor: “I know that for someone of your status, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid. But even if it’s like striking a stone with an egg, and courting self-destruction like a moth to the flame, I will tell the truth about you. With your intelligence, I’m certain you will deny it or you can blame it on me, or disregard it.”

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: In sending it, she had crossed a line. A line that she knew was there. During the 20 minutes it was online, enough people saw it, screenshot it, passed it on, that after she posted it there was suddenly a spike of two million searches for the name “Peng Shuai,” on China’s main search engine. 

But then in China, the story was totally shut down.

Leta Hong Fincher: There’s a complete blackout on all social media in China about Peng Shuai’s accusation. Peng Shuai’s case has become one of those most politically sensitive topics, just like the Tiananmen massacre. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: And Peng Shuai disappeared. No one heard from her for weeks. 

And while her story had vanished in China, outside China – it was just getting going. 

Sky News: Peng Shuai hasn’t been since November 2nd when the tennis star published shocking allegations about sexual assault at the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party.

Novak Djokovic: It’s honestly shocking you know, that, that she’s missing. 

Sky News: High profile players like Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic have called for more information. 

Sky News: Naomi Osaka says she’s shocked to hear about a fellow player who has apparently gone missing…

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: When asked, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry denied all knowledge of the missing tennis player:

Translator, BBC News: “I haven’t heard of the issue you raised, this is not a diplomatic question.” 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: In other words, it’s none of your business.

The timing must have been excruciating for China’s authorities because they were preparing to host the Winter Olympics in Beijing which are due to take place on 4 February this year. 

On the 18 November, over two weeks since Peng Shuai had gone missing, the world finally heard from her… sort of.  

Sky News: In the middle of the night in Beijing, Chinese state media, CGTN, said it had the scoop, an email purportedly written by Peng to the head of the women’s tennis association, it read…

Actor:The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true. I’m not missing nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.” 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: And then, Peng Shuai appeared. 

On the 20th November the International Olympic Committee released still images of a video call between its President, Thomas Bach, and Peng Shuai in her flat, smiling, surrounded by a shelf packed with colourful teddy bears, mascots.

Today, USA: The IOC say Peng told Thomas Bach that she is quote, safe and well, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time. The IOC statement doesn’t refer at all to the sex assault allegation or why there was concern for her in the first place. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: On the same day a Chinese state affiliated journalist posted a video online of Peng Shuai having dinner in a restaurant with her coach. 

Some people commented about how the video is odd because the coach, in his monologue to Peng Shuai, repeats several times that the next day will be 21 November, as though he’s date stamping it as proof.

This video reminds me of a dynamic that Chinese writer Yan Ge talks about in a piece in the New York Times called, “How to Survive as a Woman at a Chinese Banquet”. 

And it reminds me of banquets that I’ve been to with Chinese officials. Dishes of steaming food stay largely untouched, like a display of the host’s power.

And so it is here, dishes of food circle slowly on the lazy Susan in the middle of the table, nobody eating. Peng Shuai sits there as her coach holds court. 

She’s there in body, but from her face she looks like she’s somewhere else entirely. Somewhere very far away.

The IOC released a statement to the press on 2 December saying they were using “quiet diplomacy” to ensure her wellbeing and safety while they continued with the plan for Beijing to host the Winter Olympics this February. 

Only one man was willing to really stand up to China on behalf of Peng Shuai, and that was Steve Simon. A bespectacled, sixty-something American. A former tennis player. 

He runs the Women’s Tennis Association that was founded by Billie Jean King. This is him speaking to Christiane Amanpour on CNN.

Christiane Amanpour: You’ve received emails from Peng Shuai in, you know, since you’ve taken your stance, do you have any reason to believe those emails really come from her? Were dictated to her? How would you characterise them?

Steve Simon: I would characterise them as orchestrated at this point in time. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: The WTA have suspended all matches in China in 2022 and have asked China’s government to investigate Zhang Gaoli – the politician Peng Shuai had accused of sexual assault. 

This move means that the WTA will lose hundreds of millions of dollars. Nobody usually stands up to China like this. Not countries, not companies, not the IOC. 

Steve Simon: This is a situation where we’re dealing with right and wrong. And there’s too many times in this world in which we’re faced with challenges such as this, where we allow politics and, and government and money and financials to get into the way of, of what the right decision is and we end up with compromised decisions.

When you get to sexual assault that cannot be compromised in any way, shape or form and we’re going to side on the side of what’s right and wrong. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: And in going where no-one else had dared to go, The Global Times, China’s big state tabloid, labelled Steve Simon a hostile foriegn force. 

But on the international front China had this under control. They’d managed to satisfy the IOC. 

The WTA had suspended it’s China tournament – but China’s largely closed for Covid this year anyway. They’d handled it. 

But inside China – although the Peng Shuai story had been censored – it hadn’t gone away.

*** 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: The moment she pressed send, Peng Shuai collided with a constellation of political and social forces.  

Leta Hong Fincher: No, no, that has never happened. I mean, China’s elite leaders that the most senior leaders, are just a complete unknown. I mean, we never know anything about their private lives.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: This is Leta Hong Fincher, she writes on feminism in China.

Leta Hong Fincher: The Chinese government is autocratic and so there’s no transparency about the leadership whatsoever. And so to have all of these incredible details coming from a famous tennis star about this senior retired leader, it’s just completely unheard of and unprecedented.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Peng Shuai broke a basic taboo. For a high profile individual to use their platform to criticise an official, online, is vanishingly rare. For anybody inside China to publicly criticise a former vice-premier, that’s unprecedented. 

Lu Pin: Peng Shuai is the first woman who used her real name, her real identity. Who used  her perspective to tell us the story beside the narrative of the so-called affair.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: This is a well-known Chinese feminist, Lu Pin, she’s the founder of a website called Feminist Voices that was shutdown last year.  

Lu Pin: She told us the relationship between those top of the party leaders and women.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: She exposed the relationship between a top party leader and his mistress.

Actor: “From the first day I met you up to today, I’ve never used a penny of yours, and I’ve never used you for any personal benefits, but a person’s status is very important. I deserved all of this, I courted disaster. From beginning to end, you have always asked me to keep my relationship with you secret, let alone tell my mother that we were in a relationship. Every time she brought me to the Xishiku cathedral, I would have to change to your car to be able to  enter the courtyard. She always thought I was going to your place to play mahjong and cards. We were transparent individuals in each other’s lives. Your wife seemed like the Empress in Empresses of the Palace, and I can’t describe how bad I felt, and how many times I wondered if I was still an actual person myself.”

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: So who is the former vice premier Peng Shuai is addressing in her late night post?   

His name is Zhang Gaoli. 

And it’s not that easy to get details on someone so high up in the Party. 

The information that is given out on him is that he comes from rural China, his family were poor. His father died when he was three. 

He studied economics at university, got a job in an oil company, initially heavy lifting materials in a warehouse. That’s where he met his wife Kang Jie. 

He joined the Communist Party and became the deputy Party Secretary at the oil company, then worked his way up the Party. On his way up he got know Xi Jinping’s father, one of the Party’s early revolutionaries. 

It’s a classic party background.

Now he’s 75, 40 years older than Peng Shuai. 

I spoke to businessman Desmond Shum who’s written about his experiences of power and corruption in China. He’s met Zhang Gaoli and described him as ‘a technocrat’. 

To have a mistress in China is against Communist Party rules. But it’s widespread, and accepted until officials get purged for corruption, and then it gets added to the list of the things they’re in trouble for. 

To be accused by China’s Discipline Committee of ‘moral corruption’ is Party terminology for having three or more mistresses. 

But it works differently for people at the very top of the Party like Zhang Gaoli. 

Someone in the know told me that for these most senior leaders – if a mistress is required – she must be state sanctioned. She needs to be on the Party’s books. Someone over whom the Party can have complete control. 

According to that same person, the Party even has an office to handle this. 

It’s their job to make sure that a scandal like the one Peng Shuai set off – never happens. 

***

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: To criticise the handful of men who’ve been part of Chairman Xi’s Politburo standing committee, his cabinet, is so out of the ordinary in China – that there was a moment of speculation that maybe Peng Shuai’s post was part of a factional battle at the top of the Party, and that Xi Jinping was somehow behind it.

For people very familiar with China – it’s been hard to compute that this could be an individual woman, late at night on her phone, feeling miserable and furious and brave, and daring to speak out about being sexually abused. 

But that’s the thing – Peng Shuai’s post – doesn’t read like a dissident – criticising China’s regime. It’s not political in that way. 

It reads more like a metoo post – it’s part of that discourse. Her post is both raw and sophisticated. She owns the idea straight away that she’s an ‘imperfect victim’ that this is a love affair as well as a coercive, abusive relationship.

Actor: “I know I can’t say it clearly and that it’s useless to say but I want to say it anyway. I’m such a hypocrite. I’ll admit I’m not a good girl, I’m a bad bad girl. 

“The feelings between two people can be very complicated, I can’t clearly explain, [but] after that day I again began to open up to your love. In the days I interacted with you afterwards, purely from how we got along, you were a very good person and also treated me well.”

Leta Hong Fincher: It’s very similar actually to any other victim of sexual abuse who has come out and spoken out and being emboldened by the metoo movement to speak out. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Writer, Leta Hong Fincher…

Leta Hong Fincher: It can be, certainly in a place like China, an act of sheer desperation, just a last resort. And she said, like a moth drawn to a flame, even if I self-destruct I’m going to tell the truth about you. But that sentiment is quite common for any victim of sexual abuse who’s going public. It’s just that in a lot of other countries, let’s say America or the UK, you know, you’re not going to be arrested or put in detention as a result of speaking out about your experience with sexual abuse.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Peng Shuai’s post was an act of self-destruction. And Peng Shuai would have known it. 

Not only did she break a fundamental Party taboo but she created a huge moment in a movement that the Party has, for the last few years, been working hard to suppress. 

Because the Party sees metoo – and feminist activism in general – as an active threat to what they call ‘national stability’. Peng Shuai’s post represents to them, a threat to the country. 

It hasn’t always been that way:

Abigail: When I grow up, you know, back to the mid-nineties and the eighties, I mean, there were a lot of things going on.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: This is a Chinese journalist, we’ll call her Abigail. She lives outside China. She’s asked to be anonymous.

Abigail: There’s a culture written by women and events organised by women and women dressed up in the wedding costumes and walking in the street advertising for their rights and anti the domestic violence, and that was the time, that was the time that we feel like we do have a voice. And, and then when the censorship started to tighten up, back to 10 or 12 years ago… I started to feel this suffocation in many parts of the social life.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Just ten years ago it was possible to campaign on women’s issues but after Xi Jingping became Communist Party Chairman in 2013 the government cracked down on civil society activism in general – and feminists were hit particularly hard.  

In 2015 a group of women preparing to campaign on the issue of sexual harassment were brutally detained for five weeks. One of the women, 25-year old Li Ting Ting, spoke to Al Jazeera:

Li Ting Ting speaking on Al Jazeera: We were only planning to go to buses and give people stickers with their consent. There were only five of us. I didn’t think it was a big deal. But they said, how do you know it’s not a big deal? Those street peddlers got arrested for disturbing social order. It seemed they were really nervous about it. I didn’t expect to be arrested.

Leta Hong Fincher: I think that in the years, since that, since those five feminists were jailed, we can see that the government really does perceive feminism to pose a unique threat to Communist Party rule.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Leta Hong Fincher wrote a book about, and with, those five women. 

Leta Hong Fincher: So, first of all, these women were very savvy organisers and so any kind of savvy organiser is going to be treated as a real troublemaker. And it does, it is really extreme. I mean, the, the way these five women were treated in detention was extreme, incredibly hostile… a couple of them really needed urgent medical treatment and were denied medical treatment. 

You see in the propaganda coming from the Chinese government that feminist activists are accused of being tools of quote unquote hostile foreign forces, or maybe they’re accused of being spies for Western countries, that kind of language smearing these feminists, accusing them of being subversive, trying to undermine the Chinese government. And what is new as of 2015 is that the Chinese government has now identified this new threat: feminism. 

***

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: From this point, in 2015, grass roots organisations were shut down. Censorship and surveillance of feminist activists increased. 

And since then, activists online have found themselves in a race with the censorship algorithm which is constantly updated, decoding their puns and jargon. The hashtag metoo is banned.

But this is not to say that China hasn’t been touched by metoo. 

It ripped through several of China’s universities from 2018. Professors lost their jobs, universities established sexual harassment protocols. 

Last year metoo in China took down Canadian-Chinese popstar Kris Wu who was then arrested in Beijing on rape charges. 

And the Party has recently announced a new draft amendment to the Women’s Rights and Interests law that for the first time will define sexual harassment. 

But there are cases reported which also show the distance still to go. 

In December, at Alibaba (China’s equivalent of Amazon) – a woman who accused her boss of harassment was fired.

And in the autumn a former intern, XianZi, lost her court case against a Chinese Central Television host who she claimed trapped her in a room and abused her. 

It’s hard to work out how seriously China is taking sexual harassment, so I spoke to Darius Longarino. He researches legal issues related to gender in China at Yale. He discovered that between 2018 – 2020 there were 83 court cases involving the issue of sexual harrassment. 

Darius Longarino: And only a small minority of cases were brought by, uh, the alleged survivor saying that they had been harassed. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: By small he means really small, only six were brought by victims of sexual harassment.

The rest?

Darius Longarino: The majority of those cases were defamation or labour dispute cases in which the alleged harasser brought a case to court saying that their rights had been violated.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Darius explained to me that in China, while a woman can sue her harasser, because of rules about the burden of proof in the Chinese system, unless she has video evidence, it’s very hard for her to win. 

And that’s something that Peng Shuai even hints at in her post.

Actor: “You said there were no transactions between us, that’s true, with all the feelings and money between us, it had nothing to do with power and wealth. But I have nowhere to leave my feelings of the past three years, it’s very hard to face. You were always afraid that I would bring some kind of recorder and leave evidence or something. Apart from myself, there is indeed no evidence left, no recordings, no videos, only my distorted real experiences.”

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: And this is precisely what’s changed in the countries where metoo has flourished. 

‘Her’ words count against ‘his’.

Women’s testimonies are listened to, and can be considered evidence. 

Chinese feminist Lu Pin explained to me that progress in China happens in a very tightly controlled way.

Lu Pin: I mean the Chinese government never excludes the possibility that they will respond to women’s demands, sometimes they will. Sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t. I think that perhaps the key factor is that who decides the agenda for women’s rights. The government didn’t allow us to set the agenda for that. They hold the power to decide at which point they could, they will respond or not respond to our demands.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: And Lu Pin should know. She’s lived in exile in the US ever since the feminist five, who she mentored, were arrested in 2015. At the time the police were rounding up the Five women they also went looking for Lu Pin.  

So the Party will do what it can, when it can, in its own time, in it’s own way. A Party report on the new amendment to the Women’s Rights and Interest law says as much:

Actor: The “Draft Amendment” translates measures that meet the real needs of women’s rights and interests protection, have proven effective in practice, and have relatively consistent understandings into legal norms in a timely manner to ensure that women equally share the fruits of development. At the same time, we adhere to the principle of doing our best and doing what we can. We do not blindly imitate the practices of Western countries, and we do not revise content that is more controversial, or when the time and conditions for revision are not yet ripe.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: So I understand that Xi Jinping is all about control. 

And Peng Shuai’s post is not part of his plan. 

But what I can’t get my head around is why feminist and metoo activists are seen as a threat to national security, and as agents of hostile foriegn forces. 

It seems so extreme. 

Is it authoritarian madness? Or is there some inner logic?

***

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: To try to answer this question – I’m going to tell you another story.

One that takes place just around the time when the Party began to clamp down so strongly on the feminist five in 2015.

Al Jazeera: After more than 35 years, China is ending its one child policy. Now families will be able to have two children, but no more.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: The Party had realised that the One Child Policy had gone way too far. 

Al Jazeera: Why? Because the population is ageing and its workforce is shrinking. That’s an imbalance that will hurt China’s economy for years to come. The policy is estimated to have prevented 400 million additional births. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: But the two child policy didn’t work either. 

France24: The birth rate in the world’s most populous country, China, fell for a fifth consecutive year to hit a record low. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: So in May of last year the Chinese government introduced a three-child policy, Leta Hong Fincher:

Leta Hong Fincher: And so we’re seeing a lot of what I would say, coercive elements to this new three child policy. And I believe that we’re going to see more coercion in the future.

Lu Pin: Actually I don’t think the government has any other major crises except for the population crisis. So how to, how to make women have more children is a big challenge.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: The government has no other major crises except for the population crisis” says Lu Pin.

The irony here is that the One Child Policy – though brutal in many ways – unwittingly brought about a generation of independent women quite unique in China’s history. 

They’re unique because for the first time in China daughters got all the attention, love, investment in their education. Chinese journalist Abigail:

Abigail: Traditionally only boys can carry the family line and that’s well stated in Chinese history and girls have no inheritance rights in terms of property in terms of title, in terms of money and everything. So when girls were born, when they grow up… they will be sent to their in-laws, they will be looked after by their in-laws and husbands.

Because of [the] one child policy many families have no choice but to look after their own little girl and to treasure it, empower her, to let her to study, to go to university and, you know, to receive the best education, to find a good job and to become independent.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: This generation of women start to question why their voices have been suppressed.

Peng Shuai is part of this generation. Born in 1986, six years after the One Child Policy was officially introduced. 

She’s 36, she’s single, she doesn’t have children. 

Abigail:The characteristic of this new generation, they have understanding towards what they really want in in their life and they try to escape from the traditional roads that impose on them, which was to become a mother and to look after the family, you know?

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: A Chinese psychoanalyst once said to me that the unique thing about the modern Chinese psyche is that it has two super egos: the parents, and the Party, and it’s confusing if they don’t align. 

But perhaps what’s even more overwhelming – are the moments when they do. The combined pressure on women coming from the family and from the state – is enormous.

Abigail: They try to say that your body doesn’t belong to yourself. Your body belongs to the family. Not just the whole family, the city, and then the country. The country can’t live without your body because without those babies, the whole country would decline.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: So this is the larger context that Peng Shuai walked into in November 2021. The Party’s priority is to fix the demographic crisis, rescue the economy, and their own legitimacy. 

They’ve worked out a strong message for the part women need to play in all this. And Peng Shuai’s post is off-message in many ways. 

***

No one has heard from Peng Shuai since 19 December when she retracted her claims on camera to a journalist from the Singapore paper, Lianhe Zaobao.

[Clip: Peng Shuai speaking to the Lianhe Zaobao]

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: She looks stressed. Pale and confused, she’s asking the reporter to repeat the question. Her poise couldn’t be more different from how natural and open she is in all the media interviews she’s done before.

[Clip: Peng Shuai speaking to the Lianhe Zaobao]

She says clearly, with an assertive voice, that she didn’t write anything about sexual assault, and that people have misunderstood things about her private life. 

And millions of women – and men – who’ve experienced the last five years of conversations since metoo understand her denial. Lu Pin:

Lu Pin: I totally understand if she decided not to talk about her experience anymore. I even totally understand she decided to deny what had happened. She has already done what she could and she left the job to us.  

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Desmond Shum – the businessman who has spent time with some of China’s top officials – tells me that he can imagine that a lot of pressure could have been put on her, and her family, to get her to retract the allegations she made against Zhang Gaoli.

He told me that from what he’s seen – there’s a lot of abuse of women and of mistresses at that level of China’s politics. Exploitation is common – a given – he said. 

He told me he thinks the Party will make an example of Peng Shuai – to make sure that other women don’t follow her lead. 

As for Zhang Gaoli – Desmond imagines there will be no repercussions for him. Anyone who’s made it to the minister level is way above the law, above everything – except for factional politics. 

So where is Peng Shuai now? She’s probably under house arrest. Whether she has national security agents outside her place, or inside her home we don’t know.

Desmond thinks that once the media storm blows away – she won’t be seen in public again. She won’t live a free life. She’ll be closely watched. 

Internationally, for now, Peng Shuai’s story is still going. Tennis players are showing support for her right now at the Australian Open. 

News reporter: With the Beijing Olympics coming up and so much attention in the last few months about Peng Shuai, I was wondering what your thoughts are about her today? 

Garbiñe Muguruza: I don’t know. It’s a little bit not moving forward I feel, it’s just there since months and months, and we’ve talked about it, it seemed like for a moment, like, okay, we’re going to find out what’s happening and I think it’s going to be very difficult to find the real truth.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: And in their December statement the IOC said they’d be meeting with Peng Shuai in person in January. 

We’ve contacted them to ask them exactly when that meeting will be.

They say it will be in the next couple of weeks in Beijing.  

In an email they told us they’re now following a strategy of ‘silent diplomacy’ and that Peng Shaui’s ‘physical integrity’ is their top priority.

It’s hard to think about how Peng Shuai’s feeling right now. And whether she’s wrestling with regret. But I wonder if part of her feels that she just couldn’t stay silent any longer:

Actor: “I felt like a zombie, I was pretending so much every day that I didn’t know who the real me was anymore. I shouldn’t have come into this world, but I didn’t have the courage to die. I wanted to live a simpler life, but things turned out contrary to what I wanted.”

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: It’s too soon to tell what – if any – impact her post might have on the issues of sexual abuse and sexual harassment in China. Or whether one day, Peng Shuai might be able to look back, on that moment at 10 o’clock at night on 2 November, and feel that pressing send was worth it.

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