China’s #MeToo movement has taken a step closer to the centre of power in Beijing, after sexual abuse allegations by a top Chinese tennis star were made against a man who until recently was one of Xi Jinping’s closest henchman at the pinnacle of Communist party rule.
The tennis star, Peng Shuai, made the allegations against Zhang Gaoli, who until 2018 was vice-president and a member of the seven-strong Standing Committee of the Party’s Politburo, the country’s highest ruling group.
Peng alleged in a post on her Weibo social media account that Zhang had assaulted her at the beginning of an affair that lasted from 2012 to 2017. The post was removed by censors within 20 minutes and Peng’s account was blocked, but users continued to share screenshots of her post. In a desperate attempt to prevent people finding her claims and to close down the conversation entirely, the censors reportedly added ‘tennis’ to a list of banned words online.
Peng is extremely well-known in China. In 2014 she became the first Chinese player to be ranked world number one after she reached the top ranking in doubles. She reached number 14 in the singles rankings, but has since slipped well down the ratings.
That sexual abuse allegations have reached the top of the Party will come as no surprise to those familiar with the male-dominated culture of power and impunity in China. It also reveals the limits of #MeToo in China, with the Party willing to tolerate the movement when it suits its purposes, but not when it threatens its own senior members.
Earlier this year an abuse scandal at Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, created a firestorm online after a woman, frustrated that the company would not take her seriously, shared details of her ordeal on the internet where it quickly went viral. The company sacked the accused manager. That was followed by the arrest on suspicion of rape of Kris Wu, a Chinese-Canadian pop star. For a while sexual harassment became one of the most discussed topics on Chinese social media. As did the widespread culture of boorish drinking and entertaining, sexual discrimination and casual harassment in the Chinese workplace.
In both cases the outcry suited the Communist party’s agenda, which is targeting big tech companies as well as entertainers deemed to be ‘vulgar influencers’. The CCP wants to bring down the likes of Alibaba a peg or two, while the National Radio and Television Administration wants to encourage programmes that promote what it calls traditional, revolutionary or ‘advanced socialist’ culture.
In the weeks that have passed since those cases, #MeToo and the feminist movement more generally have faced fresh setbacks. Police dropped charges against the accused manager from the tech giant Alibaba. The investigation reportedly confirmed the details of the assault provided by the victim, but prosecutors ruled that even though her manager committed ‘forcible indecency’, it was not a prosecutable offence. Alibaba sacked ten employees who had shared the victim’s allegations online.
A Beijing court also threw out a harassment case against one of the country’s top television hosts, which was seen as a test case. The judge said insufficient evidence had been provided by the victim, who now faces a defamation lawsuit brought by the man she accused. Judging by recent cases, this stands a far greater chance of success. China only recently passed legislation defining sexual harassment, and courts have set a very high bar for a successful prosecution.
Even before Peng’s allegations, discussion of gender issues were once again being targeted online with scores of feminist and LGBT accounts deleted from the internet. The Communist party has always been intolerant of any organised movement beyond its control. Women publicly exerting their rights is seen by Xi Jinping and the grey paranoid men who surround him first and foremost as a threat to the much vaunted stability of Party rule – doubly so when allegations of abuse reach their own inner sanctums.