A Chinese tennis player throwing a #MeToo accusation at a CCP top level politician is largely an internal affair for China. Such issues are forgotten after some time. However a headline from South China Morning Post on 05 Dec, caught my eye. It said “How Peng Shuai is fanning the embers of China’s #MeToo movement”. Such a head line, a month after the incident, deserves a second look. Anything to do with people in China always needs deep understanding. China’s boat has clearly been rocked by Peng Shuai. Her 1,600 word post on Weibo in which she has accused former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli on #MeToo lines has exposed hidden fault lines. This is the first time such an allegation has been made against any senior Chinese political leader. For a regime which depends a lot on its image with the people, the implications are grave.
Zhang Gaoli is 75. He was the top CCP official in Tianjin. He was a vice-premier between 2013 and 2018. He presided over preparations for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. He was also involved in expanding the BRI. He was Xi Jinping’s special envoy at a UN climate conference in 2014. In PLA celebrations, he was front row material alongside Xi Jinping. He is described as being pragmatic and was reported as “rarely been controversial since becoming an official”. A typical Chinese heavy weight. Above reproach.
Peng Shuai, aged 35, is a former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion(2014). She is a three-time Olympian whose tennis career spans more than two decades. In February 2014, she was a world No. 1 in doubles. As the first Chinese player, to attain the top rank in either singles or doubles, she was China’s poster girl for their propaganda. She was the Chinese inspirational and aspirational image of many things for youth. She also had a great youth following and popularised tennis significantly.
On 02 Nov, Peng Shuai accused Zhang Gaoli, of sexual coercion after inviting her to his home. Bizarrely, Zhang Gaoli’s wife is said to have stood guard over this relationship. This consensual but apparently conflicted relationship with Zhang Gaoli , 40 years senior to Peng Shuai lasted three years. Ultimately when she accused Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault she wrote “Like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you”. Then she disappeared from public view.
State censors quickly restricted searches for Ms. Peng’s name on the Chinese internet and deleted the post. However it got shared around 1,000 times. Netizens logged nearly seven million searches for the post. Now her name has been totally scrubbed from the net. Chinese tennis fans started discussing the issue obscurely to escape censors. The WTA started asking questions regarding her safety and international stars like Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Novac Djokovich and Billie Jean King started chipping in. There was an international outcry.
Initially China’s dodged all questions. It claimed to be unaware of the matter. Then it stated that the topic fell outside its purview. Zhao Lijian, their ace spin doctor, adopted his familiar tactic. He started questioning the motives of the outcry and called for ‘malicious hype’ to stop and not to politicise the issue. China’s two-pronged approach was simple – maintain silence and wait for the world to move on. Peng Shuai’s allegations had penetrated the citadel of Chinese power. A top man of China’s power centre was in the cross hairs for which it did not have any answers.
The Chinese Communist Party’s response was therefore typically choreographed. The state media posted three video clips in which Peng Shuai was eating at a restaurant and attending a tennis event in Beijing. A few days later, the President of the International Olympic Committee was allowed to speak to her through a video call. After the call he said “I was relieved to see that Peng Shuai was doing fine, which was our main concern. She appeared to be relaxed”. However, the President of the IOC is considered to be a Chinese lackey like the WHO chief. On the other hand, the well-respected Steve Simon, the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association stated “While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation…we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation – without censorship – into Peng Shuai’s sexual assault accusation…none of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”
When China stonewalled, WTA announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong. It has hurt the WTA financially, but it is determined to find alternatives. For the first time a major sports association has stood up to China and was not fazed by financial inducements. Bigger sports associations like the IOC , NBA and many others have not stood up to Chinese coercion and pressure and succumbed to its influence. Will this lead to a boycott/partial boycott/ protest at the forth coming Beijing Olympics? That is already happening with USA declaring a diplomatic boycott. However there are other issues beyond this.
The CCP legitimises its power and exercises its grip over China through control of narrative and censorship. That is at risk. The party leadership is caught in a cleft. Acknowledging allegations against Zhang Gaoli implies that the CCP leadership is no different from the old Chinese imperialists , who lived luxuriously without a care for poverty stricken masses. For most of them fashionable display of power and wealth included having young concubines. This incident indicates that the current crop of CCP leaders are elitist and have veered from the ‘People’s path’ set by Mao. All talk of back to communism with Chinese characteristics by Xi Jinping is nonsense. This #MeToo accusation from a lauded and patriotic athlete which implicates someone close to Xi Jinping lands the problem in his lap. It is a complicated issue. Stonewalling and doing nothing could stir and create more sub-surface ripples in people. The Chinese Communist Party has to protect itself and its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. A new narrative will be with the approval of top Chinese leaders, maybe Xi Jinping himself. If that also backfires like the current one , then problems abound.
Mao Zedong famously proclaimed in 1968 that “women hold up half the sky.” Images of that time depict smiling female farm workers, scientists, welders and factory workers who boosted China’s overall production. Since then, conditions have worsened for women. Not a single woman has ever made it onto the elite Politburo Standing Committee. It has always been a group of seven men at the pinnacle of the party. Female representation on the 204-member Central Committee of the Party has steadily declined. Women’s participation in the labour force has fallen to 60.5 percent in 2019 from 73 percent in 1990 . China is in the bottom third of all countries evaluated for their gender disparities, according to the World Economic Forum. In an International Women’s Day address , Xi Jinping barely scratched the surface of women’s contributions to economic development. The belief is that the Communist Party wants women to be obedient wives and mothers. Forget half the sky, even the other half is also falling down on women in China. In this overall climate, this affair can take a turn to show how much China’s all-male Communist Party subjugates women. If women go against the system, the dangers for the Communists are grave.
When China’s population is ageing and declining population, women are important to produce children and stabilise the population. Very significantly many of the benefits and incentives for the second and third child which the state has been promising have been offloaded to employers to fulfil. Many employers are not hiring women to avoid the financial burden of paying the benefits. Hence women unemployment is going up and they are feeling discriminated. Additionally, unmarried women are being stigmatised as leftover women in a gender discriminated society which has surplus of unmarried males. All these put together could trigger a massive reaction from women. Peng Shuai might become the symbol of feminist activism. If more women could speak up on such issues, the floodgates could open. The danger is live and current.
Xi Jinping recently told senior Communist Party officials that they should improve their communications with the rest of the world. His instructions were “Tell the China story well. Create a credible, lovable and respectable image of China.” Well. Well. Well. The China story which comes through this episode is threefold. Firstly the CCP and its leaders are unprincipled lecherous power accumulators more in the Imperial China mould. All talk of weeding out corruption by Xi Jinping is hollow. Secondly , as the nation completes 100 years under a repressive authoritarian system where women are heavily discriminated; it faces an uncertain future. Look at it another way, China is trifling with 50 % of its population, which is prime to reverse its ageing, declining numbers, economy and its very future. Definitely asking for trouble. Thirdly, WTA has stood up and has caught Chinese propaganda flat footed. The overall image which comes through is that Chinese Communists want to dip their horny bills into the sweets nectar pots. So much for the ‘Three Warfare Strategy’
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