Chinese Censorship in Overdrive After Tennis Star Accuses Ex-Top Leader of Sexual Assault

Former Wimbledon champion Peng Shuai has accused ex-Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex.
Peng Shuai tennis china
Tennis star Peng Shuai's accusations have been erased from the Chinese internet. Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

A top Chinese tennis player has made shocking allegations of sexual assault by a former leader, the first time a senior member of the ruling Communist Party was accused of sexual misconduct since the start of a budding #MeToo movement in the country.

Peng Shuai, a former Wimbledon doubles champion, alleged on Tuesday night she was coerced into having sex with ex-Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli three years ago. The claims, which have not been corroborated, were posted on her verified account on the microblogging site Weibo. Peng is currently 35 years old, and Zhang, who retired in 2018, is 75 and married.


The explosive allegations were swiftly deleted by Weibo before midnight on Tuesday, and screenshots were censored on various Chinese platforms. Social media sites now forbid users from commenting on posts containing the names of Peng and Zhang. Weibo suspended its tennis fan forum.

Some internet users managed to read Peng’s post by circumventing the Great Firewall, and tried to spread the message with euphemisms and emojis.

But even oblique references to the case have been removed. Movie review site Douban took down the page of Korean drama Prime Minister and I, after the title was used to refer to Peng’s allegations.

A picture of a leopard killing a prey while other animals were watching from afar—an apparent reference to the case—was shared more than 2,000 times on Weibo before it was deleted early Wednesday. One Douban user retold Peng’s story by replacing her and Zhang’s names with Serena Williams and former U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence. The post was soon taken down as well. 

In her lengthy account, Peng said that after Zhang’s retirement about three years ago, she was invited to play tennis with him and then brought to his home in Beijing. Zhang pressured her into having sex, Peng wrote in the post, and she eventually entered into a relationship with him. She also said she already had sex with Zhang once seven years ago, and he had not contacted her afterward, until the tennis invitation. The claims could not be verified. 


“I admit I am not a good girl, but a very very bad girl,” she wrote in the post.

“I know that for someone of your status and power, Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said you were not afraid,” the post said. “But even if it’s me, like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, seeking self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you.” 

Asked about the case on Wednesday, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said he had not heard about the issue. 

Zhang Gaoli

Then Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli makes a speech in Beijing in 2016. Photo: Wu Hong-Pool/Getty Images

Peng did not call her experience an assault or refer to the #MeToo movement in the post. But her post came after a slew of Chinese women came forward with sexual abuse allegations against prominent men, including business executives and entertainment stars. 

Chinese people were allowed much freedom to discuss the controversies surrounding pop stars like Kris Wu. Wu was arrested on rape charges in August and saw his works erased from the internet, as the state made a case about how artists it considers morally-compromised would fare. 

In contrast, Peng’s shocking allegations were almost completely wiped out within hours. No substantial discussions had taken place, even in online communities popular with young women’s rights advocates. Some internet users have warned others against the potential retaliations on those who tried to share the news, and only a few people were able to express veiled sympathy toward Peng and wish her safety. Peng’s whereabouts are unknown.

“Peng Shuai is of course not a part of an organized #MeToo movement, but she is one of the people responding to it and setting a role model,” Lü Pin, a New York-based Chinese feminist activist, wrote on Twitter, adding that victims have been using their own painful experiences to challenge censorship and educate the public.

Peng, born in 1986, started playing tennis at the age of eight and was the first Chinese player to be ranked world No. 1 in doubles by the Women’s Tennis Association. In 2013, she won a Wimbledon doubles title with Taiwanese player Hsieh Su-wei. 

Former Vice-Premier Zhang, born in 1946 in a village in eastern China, had governed economic powerhouses including Shenzhen and Tianjin before being promoted to the top leadership in 2013, serving under President Xi Jinping, according to a profile by the state-run Xinhua news agency. Xinhua said Zhang’s hobbies included reading, Chinese chess, and tennis.