The Irrepressible Strength of Peng Shuai

The Irrepressible Strength of Peng Shuai

By telling her story, tennis champion Peng Shuai revealed how a violent power structure hides its violence, and the perverse way in which it drags in its victims.

Peng Shuai serves in a match at the Australian Open tennis championship on Jan. 21, 2020 (Xinhua/Bai Xue via Getty Images)

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As the Beijing Winter Olympics are set to begin, a cloud of uncertainty continues to hang over Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, the former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion. Last November, Peng posted a lengthy statement on the social media site Weibo accusing China’s former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her, referring to a years-long, on-again, off-again relationship. The post was deleted by censors within half an hour and Peng disappeared for several weeks, unleashing a flood of international news reports and prompting tennis celebrities such as Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka to post their concern on Twitter, using the viral hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai. Chinese state media sought to stanch the flow of bad publicity by releasing bizarre propaganda images of Peng through government-affiliated Twitter accounts, attempting to persuade foreign audiences that she was free and well.

The Chinese government has a long history of forcing political prisoners or detainees to give false, televised testimony to suit its propaganda goals, and Peng’s obviously staged appearances failed to convince the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which took the unprecedented step of withdrawing all tournaments from China. In late December, Peng was filmed giving a short interview to Lianhe Zaobao, a Singaporean Chinese-language news outlet, saying that “there were many misunderstandings” about her social media post and claiming that she “never said or wrote about anyone sexually assaulting” her. This, too, failed to allay doubts about her safety, and the WTA issued a statement to Reuters on December 19 saying, “these appearances do not alleviate or address the WTA’s significant concerns about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion. We remain steadfast in our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern.”

Peng’s case is by far the most explosive of China’s #MeToo movement, which has managed to gain momentum in spite of an intensifying government crackdown on feminist activism and social media accounts. There is no better person to comment on Peng’s courageous Weibo post and what it could mean for the future of the beleaguered, women’s rights movement than Lü Pin, founding editor-in-chief of China’s now-banned media platform, Feminist Voices (Nüquan zhi sheng). She is one of China’s most influential intellectuals, and she is currently pursuing a PhD at Rutgers University’s program in women and politics. Her essay on Peng Shuai, originally published in Chinese, is translated here for the first time into English by Anne Henochowicz. —Leta Hong Fincher


On November 2, one of China’s tennis superstars shocked social media. In a long post to her verified Weibo account, evidently published without much thought as to the consequences, Peng Shuai revealed that former Politburo Standing Committee member and vice premier Zhang Gaoli had forced her into a sexual relationship, setting in motion a three-year love-hate affair. When she realized that Zhang was only “playing, and would leave me as soon as he didn’t want me anymore,” Peng wrote, she decided to speak out.

Social media suffered a collapse similar to her own. Peng’s post soon disappeared, as did keywords related to her story. Netizens quickly invented code words to fill in the gaps. Peng’s Weibo account lingered for a day or two, before every last trace was wiped from social media. While the record of her athletic achievements remains, only the most veiled discussion of her trauma can continue. People are terrified that what they say could have consequences for Peng. Like a cipher, the simple words “I hope she’s safe” quietly circulate online.


The Violence of the Powerful

“I’m throwing eggs at the wall,” Peng Shuai wrote in her Weibo post. “I’m a moth to the flame. I am courting disaster.” She must have known the risk she was taking when she typed out Zhang Gaoli’s name.

The upper echelons of China’s leadership keep up a false front. The public can only guess what’s really going on beneath their dyed-black heads of hair and their dark suits, their dull faces and their stock speeches. The details of their sex lives only shake out when they lose a political struggle, appearing as criminal charges. In these cases, women are the ignoble proof of the fallen leader’s crime. No one knows for sure what the women have gone through, or even who they are.

By finally telling her story—a story of resistance whose main subject is a woman, a story of the coercion, domination, and intimidation she has personally suffered—Peng Shuai has testified to the violence of those in power. Though she hasn’t presented any evidence, her testimony is authentic. People have always known “they” are degenerate, brutal, and cavalier. Peng’s testimony is shocking simply because it is vivid, concrete proof of this. More infuriating is that even a woman as remarkable and independent as her could not save herself from predation.

Peng has unwittingly revealed how a violent power structure hides its violence, and the perverse way in which it drags in its victims.


The Imperfect Victim

“At first I refused and cried all afternoon,” Peng wrote, but once she was forced to have sexual intercourse she “began to have feelings for you.” She and Zhang “got along so well that it seemed like we really fit together,” to the point that she attributed any inconvenience she encountered to “the importance of status.” It seems the conflict finally erupted because Zhang did not divorce his wife, nor did he stop his wife from bullying Peng. For the most part, you could say it’s the old story of the jilted mistress.

But the enormous power differential between Peng and Zhang already determined that she was not entering into this relationship by choice, and that she did not have the option to safely leave. “Love” in this case was psychological compensation for the loss of power, a coping mechanism for the cognitive dissonance of her situation, a balm for her self-perception through the days of forced companionship. In a sense, she pretended this abusive relationship was a lopsided romance.

While Peng and her abuser are both in extraordinary positions, her psychological experience is similar to many ordinary women in abusive relationships. They focus on whether their abuser “loves” them. They say that “it’s complicated.” They even hope that their abuser will make their relationship “official.” Women are acculturated to believe that the line between a man’s love and violence is unclear, and that men may legitimately express their love through subjugation, plunder, and control. Social stigma compels victims to justify the relationships in which they are caught.

Society effectively leads women to participate in the denial of violence. Thousands upon thousands of victims turn on themselves. They are silenced by shame, self-reproach, and the awareness that no one will support them. The “imperfect victim” is the product of a system of violence, which allows violence to continue.


Self-Respect and Self-Judgement

Peng described herself as “worthless” and mentioned more than once that she wanted to die. This in fact proves the persistence of her self-esteem. Like other victims, Peng knows in her heart that she shouldn’t be treated like this. This is the real reason she spoke out: not to seek justice, but to speak her truth and restore her sense of self. I’m sure that Peng had already made this judgment when she hit “post.” This must be the journey of so many women of the #MeToo movement: they blame themselves for not being the perfect victim, and they have no way of knowing how the public will react; yet they still speak out, not just out of impulse, but because of an irrepressible strength inside them.

Peng Shuai’s case has given me greater insight into the continuity of China’s “rice bunny” movement [the code name for #MeToo, invented to evade censorship]. It continues because women say to themselves again and again: I will not take this anymore.

Some say that Peng has nothing to do with #MeToo, that she’s only airing a personal grievance. But social justice invariably starts with one person fighting an injustice they have personally suffered. Society dictates these norms to women: that sexual violence is “normal,” that they “deserve” it, and that they must never speak of it to the outside world. Professors harass students, bosses assault their subordinates, officials hunt down any woman they desire. Women make up half of the students in higher education and continue to make headway in the workplace, but they still have to pay the price of sexual objectification, while men get to keep their sexual privilege. But more and more women are coming to the conclusion that the world shouldn’t be this way. #MeToo is about women amplifying each other’s voices, breaking the silence that surrounds sexual violence and social norms.


The Chorus Born of Silence

Yet this social movement is propelled by the painful price exacted on victim after victim. Every single person who has come forward is covered in scars—must they be punished, as a warning to others? There are still so many voices that haven’t even been heard. But the momentum built by the ferocity of those who do speak up has already started to erode what society deems normal. What I mean is that imperfect victims are destined to defend themselves imperfectly. At the very least, #MeToo has done this: it has made society listen to women’s protestations, and it has made society respond, even if that response is something else entirely.

The censorship machine is powerful, and the pressure it exerts on organizers is only growing. But the non-organized, spontaneous #MeToo movement continues to push forward. The authorities have another response besides suppression, and that is diversion. [Pop star] Kris Wu was arrested [last summer] on charges of rape, but no one knows exactly who made the accusation. Now that the government has protected its authority, it can keep playing the role of the father figure and “rice bunny” referee, while at the same time defusing a crisis by taking out the target of women’s accusations. All it costs is Kris Wu, nothing but a celebrity. Take note that scaring the impulsive entertainment industry is also useful to authority.

But Zhang Gaoli is not Kris Wu. He cannot be taken down. So Peng Shuai is doomed to be thrown into the abyss.

And yet I’m sure this is not the end. As long as Peng outlives her abuser, she wins, despite all the hardship she must go through. As for other women, I believe many of them have absorbed her message: to be vigilant about the brutality of this system, to call out women’s grievances and suffering, to demand justice. While they are being silenced, women are learning to combine their voices. Who knows what the chorus will become tomorrow.

Lü Pin is the founding editor-in-chief of China’s now-banned media platform, Feminist Voices (nüquan zhi sheng). She is currently pursuing a PhD at Rutgers University.

Leta Hong Fincher is the author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China and  Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. She is the first American to receive a Ph.D. from Tsinghua University’s Department of Sociology in Beijing and is currently a Research Associate at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University. 

Anne Henochowicz is a translator and writer living outside of Washington, D.C.

This article was first published in Chinese on Sehseh’s Substack.