How Peng Shuai went from 'Chinese princess' to silent #MeToo accuser

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

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

When she faced one of China’s most powerful men three weeks ago, accusing him of sexual assault, she found her voice silenced, erased from China’s heavily controlled cyberspace and awkwardly smiling public appearances most likely intended to defuse what has become an international scandal.

At 35, Ms. Peng is one of her country’s most recognized athletes, a doubles champion at Wimbledon and Roland Garros, whom state media once referred to as “our Chinese princess.” If anyone was able to break the country’s icy resistance to #MeToo’s claims, it looks like someone like her.

Instead, she has become another example of China’s iron grip on politics, society, and sport, and an object lesson in the struggle women face who dare to challenge Beijing – even. those who used to win the praise of the state.

His claim was the first to penetrate the highest peaks of power in China, the Politburo Standing Committee. It was an act of courage and perhaps desperation that prompted an aggressive response, suffocating it inside China.

“Peng has always been a strong-minded person,” said Terry Rhoads, general manager of Zou Sports, the talent management agency in Shanghai that represented her for a decade until 2014. “I have witnessed up close her struggles and battles with the rulers, her or with authority over her tennis.

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

The only thing missing from the recent flurry of coverage was his own voice, once strong enough to force the authorities to bow to his unwavering determination to control his own destiny.

The images contrasted starkly with her own description three weeks ago of being like “a moth rushing into flames” to “tell the truth” about her relationship with – and mistreatment by – Zhang Gaoli, a former deputy prime minister, who she said assaulted her about three years ago.

“The authorities never liked feminists or #MeToo,” said Lijia Zhang, author of “Lotus”, a novel illustrating prostitution in China. Those who “dared to speak out”, she added, “were silenced”.

A #WhereisPengShuai The campaign took root less than three months before Beijing hosted the Winter Olympics, an event that the country’s leaders said would validate the power of the Communist Party. Ms. Peng’s handling of the accusation only inflamed criticism, giving ammunition to those who called for the boycott.

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

Ms Peng spoke to officials from the International Olympic Committee on Sunday, who conveyed a message to herself saying “she is safe and healthy” but that she “would like her privacy to be respected in this regard. moment”.

This did not satisfy Steve Simon, the general manager of the WTA Tour, who asked for answers on Ms. Peng’s 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 his well-being and his ability to communicate without censorship or coercion,” the group said in a statement. .

Women in China have long struggled to have an agency in the country, a situation that many activists say has worsened since Xi came to power nearly ten years ago.

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

However, when it comes to an accusation of sexual misconduct, the state has been more resistant to change. As Ms. Peng released her #MeToo allegations, Mr. Teng said, “She was barely protected by 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 by an uncle at the age of 8. to play.

“They thought I would quit tennis,” she said in an Adidas advertising campaign in 2008, “but surprisingly, I didn’t give up. Maybe because I love tennis so much, I decided to have an operation.

After the operation, she was sent to Tianjin, where she was enlisted in China’s Soviet-style sports machine, designed to produce international competitors, especially at the Olympics. She eventually competed in the Olympics three times, starting with Beijing in 2008.

In the mid-2000s, Ms. Peng decided that she was no longer willing to give more than half of her income to the state. She and three other Chinese players decided to escape state control, effectively threatening to stop playing.

When she made the decision in 2005 to “fly solo,” as it was called in Chinese, a sports official criticized her of having been too selfish, of having abandoned his “mother country”.

“She thought she was Sharapova?” the manager said, referring to the russian player who was once the No. 1 player in women’s tennis.

Even though she has adopted decades of sporting tradition, Ms. Peng has played with China’s desire to showcase its best 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 went on to win the doubles championship at Wimbledon in 2013 and again at Roland Garros in 2014. That year, playing in singles, she reached the semi-finals of the US Open, culminating as the No. 14 player in the world. With her growing success, officials congratulated her and other tennis champions, such as Li Na, the “golden flowers” ​​of Chinese sport.

“She was very endearing, always smiling and laughing, but also a great competitor,” said Patrick McEnroe, the former player and commentator, in an interview.

She could also be a calculator. In 2018, she was suspended from the Women’s Tennis Association for offering a financial incentive for Alison Van Uytvanck to step down as a doubles partner after the deadline to enter Wimbledon in 2017. Ms. Van Uytvanck Publicly criticized her at the time, but she joined other tennis stars in calling for an investigation into the recent allegations.

A number of women in media, To the universities and in the private sector in China have laid charges of sexual assault and harassment – only to face legal action themselves and online harassment.

According to the message Ms. Peng posted on November 2 to her verified account on Weibo, the ubiquitous social media platform in China, she first met Mr. Zhang when she was a rising star and that he was party secretary in Tianjin, the province-level port city near Beijing. It would have been sometime before 2012. She moved to Tianjin to begin vocational training in 1999 at the age of 13.

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

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

His post was censored within 34 minutes, but three weeks later it continues to echo. Those who have known her from her professional tennis career continue to wonder if she is safe. Some human rights activists argue that she is forced to take part in staging intended to deflect questions about what happened.

In the surge of covers over the weekend, most of which were not published in Chinese state media, Ms. Peng was shown posing with stuffed animals, dining at a Beijing restaurant, appearing at a tournament. of young people and participating in a video call with the head of the International Olympic Committee.

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

Ms. Peng no longer seems to control her own messages.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more interviews with Peng Shuai,” Maria Repnikova, assistant professor of political communication at Georgia State University and author of a new book, “Chinese Soft Power,” ” but I doubt she would raise sensitive issues.

Reports and research were provided by Amy Chang Dog, Claire Fu and Matt Futterman.

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Newsrust - US Top News: How Peng Shuai went from 'Chinese princess' to silent #MeToo accuser
How Peng Shuai went from 'Chinese princess' to silent #MeToo accuser
Newsrust - US Top News
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