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How Peng Shuai Went From Chinese Princess To Silent #MeToo Prosecutor




When Peng Shuai was a young tennis player in China’s national sports system, she fought with officials for control of her own professional career and won.

When she took on one of China’s most powerful men three weeks ago and accused him of sexual assault, she found her voice silenced, erased from China’s heavily controlled cyberspace, and smiled in awkward public appearances most likely meant to end. to what has become an international scandal.

At 35 years old, Ms. Peng is one of her country’s most recognized athletes, a double champion at Wimbledon and the French Open, who was once hailed by the state media as our Chinese princess. If anyone could break through the country’s icy resistance to #MeToo allegations, it would be someone like her.

Instead, she has become yet another example of China’s iron grip on politics, society and sports, and an objective lesson in the struggles facing women who dare to challenge Beijing, even those who have a history of winning. praise of the state.

Her claim was the first to get through to the highest powers in China, the Politburo Standing Committee. It was an act of courage and perhaps desperation that resulted in an aggressive response, suffocating her in China.

Peng has always been a determined person, said Terry Rhoads, the director of Zou Sports, the Shanghai talent management agency that represented her for a decade until 2014. I witnessed her struggles and battles with people who were her boss or authority over her tennis.

Over the weekend, the state propaganda apparatus produced a series of photos and videos purporting to show Ms Peng as if nothing had happened.

The only thing missing from the recent wave of coverage was her own voice, one that was once strong enough to force the authorities to bow to her ironclad determination to take her own destiny into her own hands.

The images contrasted sharply with her own description three weeks ago that she shot into flames like a moth to tell the truth about her relationship and abuse at the hands of Zhang Gaoli, a former deputy prime minister, who said she had killed her around three. year attacked. years ago.

The authorities have never liked feminists or #MeToo, said Lijia Zhang, the author of Lotus, a novel about prostitution in China. Those who dared speak out, she added, have been silenced.

AN #WhereisPengShuai campaign has taken root less than three months before Beijing is set to host the Winter Olympics, an event the country’s leaders have said would confirm the Communist Party’s rule. The handling of Ms Pengs’ accusation has only fueled criticism, giving ammunition to those who have called for a boycott.

These photos and videos can only prove that Peng Shuai is still alive, but nothing else. They can’t prove Peng Shuai is free, Teng Biao, one of China’s leading civil rights lawyers, said in a phone call from his home in New Jersey.

Ms. Peng spoke to International Olympic Committee officials on Sunday, who relayed a message from her that she is safe and sound, but that she would like her privacy to be respected at this time.

That did not satisfy Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA Tour, who has pushed for answers about Ms Pengs’ ability to move and speak freely. It was good to see Peng Shuai in recent videos, but they do not alleviate or address the WTA’s concerns about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion, the group said in a statement.

Women in China have long struggled to gain power in the country, a situation many activists say has worsened since Xi came to power nearly a decade ago.

Ms. Peng built a professional tennis career, which meant hiring officials who tried to dictate who she could train with, which tournaments she could play in, and how much money she could keep for herself.

However, when it comes to an allegation of sexual misconduct, the state proves more resistant to change. At the time Ms. Peng posted her #MeToo allegations, Mr. Teng said, she was barely protected by the law, and it was all politics that determined her fate.

Born in Xiangtan City, where her father was a police officer, Ms. Peng was introduced to tennis at the age of 8 through an uncle. play.

They thought I would stop playing tennis, she said in an ad campaign by Adidas in 2008, but surprisingly, I didn’t give up. Perhaps because I love tennis so much, I decided to have this surgery.

After surgery, she was sent to Tianjin, where she was drafted into the Chinese Soviet-style sports machine designed to provoke international competitors, especially during the Olympics. She went on to compete in the Olympics three times, starting with Beijing in 2008.

In the mid-2000s, Ms. Peng decided she was no longer willing to give away more than half of her earnings to the state. She and three other Chinese players decided to escape state control, in effect threatening to play.

When she made the decision in 2005 to fly solo, as it was called in Chinese, a sports official criticized her because she was too selfish and left her motherland.

She thought she was Sharapova? said the official, referring to the Russian player who for a time was the number 1 player in women’s tennis.

Even as she took on decades of sports tradition, Ms. Peng knew how to cater to China’s desire to showcase its top athletes. The head coach of the Tianjin Tennis Team, where she had trained, took credit for creating the foundation and conditions for Peng Shuai to fly solo.

Ms. Peng later won the doubles championship at Wimbledon in 2013 and again at the French Open in 2014. That year, she reached the semifinals of the US Open in singles, culminating in the number 14 player in the world. As her successes mounted, officials praised her and other tennis champions, such as Li Na, the golden flowers of Chinese sports.

She was very engaging, always smiling and giggling, but also a great competitor, Patrick McEnroe, the former player and commentator, said in an interview.

She may also be calculating. In 2018, she was suspended from the Womens Tennis Association for giving Alison Van Uytvanck a financial incentive to retire as her doubles partner after the 2017 Wimbledon registration deadline. joined other tennis stars who called for an investigation into the recent allegations.

A number of women in the media, universities and private sector in China have raised allegations of sexual assault and harassment, only to take legal action themselves and be harassed online.

According to the message posted to her verified account on Weibo, the ubiquitous social media platform in China, on Nov. 2, Ms. Peng first met Mr. Zhang when she was a rising star and he was party secretary in Tianjin, the provincial-level port city. near Beijing. That would have been some time before 2012. She moved to Tianjin to begin professional training in 1999 when she was 13.

Ms. Peng’s post described a conflicted relationship that alternated between playing chess and tennis with Mr. Zhang, or feeling ignored and ridiculed by his wife. She did not explicitly acknowledge the difference in age and power between the two. Romantic attraction is such a complicated thing, she wrote.

Mr Zhang was appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2012 and became Deputy Prime Minister under Mr Xi. He resigned after a five-year term on the committee. Ms. Peng said it was around that time that Mr. Zhang forced her to have sex. I cried all the time, she wrote.

Her post was censored within 34 minutes, but three weeks later it continues to reverberate. Those who knew her from her professional tennis career continue to wonder if she is safe. Some human rights activists claim she is forced to participate in staged situations designed to avert questions about what happened.

In the flurry of coverage over the weekend, most of which did not appear in Chinese state media, Ms. Peng is shown posing with stuffed animals, dining at a Beijing restaurant, performing at a youth tournament and dialing into a video call with the head of the International Olympic Committee.

Can a girl fake such a sunny smile under pressure? Hu Xijin, the editor of The Global Times, a state media tabloid, wrote on Twitter that it is banned in China.

Ms. Peng no longer seems to be in control of her own messages.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more interviews with Peng Shuai, Maria Repnikova, an assistant professor of political communications at Georgia State University and author of a new book, Chinese Soft Power, but I doubt she’ll address sensitive issues. set.

Reporting and research contributed by: Amy Chang Dog, Claire Fu and Matt Futterman.




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