Why Peng Shuai Has China’s Leaders Spooked

Four years after the #MeToo movement rocked global halls of power, one of its most politically consequential cases to date is unfolding in the unlikeliest of places: China. And unsurprisingly, the government there is trying to silence the dissent.

Yet the Chinese Communist Party’s choreographed response to a tennis star’s sexual assault allegations has backfired spectacularly. Instead of squashing a scandal, it is fueling China’s feminist movement — it could ultimately pose a challenge to the party itself.

On Nov. 2, Peng Shuai, a former Wimbledon doubles champion, accused China’s former vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault. “Like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you,” she wrote in a lengthy post on Weibo, China’s popular social media platform. Then she disappeared.

State censors quickly restricted searches for Ms. Peng’s name on the Chinese internet and deleted the post, but not before it was shared around 1,000 times. In the following hours, netizens logged nearly seven million searches for the post.

Journalists started asking about Ms. Peng’s whereabouts at Chinese Foreign Ministry briefings. #WhereIsPengShuai trended on Twitter. Beijing dodged for days. But then state-controlled media released a series of bizarre images and videos purporting to show Ms. Peng safe and sound: at a restaurant; cuddling a cat; signing children’s tennis balls at a teenagers’ tournament.

If Beijing thought those measures would settle matters, it was sorely mistaken. So far Ms. Peng has not made any public comment. Steve Simon, the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, said on Wednesday the women’s professional tennis tour would suspend all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, in response to Ms. Peng’s disappearance, citing “serious doubts” that she was free and safe.

Ms. Peng’s celebrity certainly has driven interest in her case. But her allegations also are groundbreaking: They are the first to implicate such a high-ranking Chinese official, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s highest ruling body.

Credit…Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times

The upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party have been largely impenetrable to scandal and enjoyed relative respect from much of the population. But Ms. Peng’s allegations raise the specter that not all is well within the elite ranks and that maybe she’s not alone: More women could speak up. The floodgates could open. And the party can’t have that.

That might help explain the heavy-handed reaction to Ms. Peng’s allegations: They were a clear attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to protect itself and its legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

Such moves from the authoritarian playbook tend to succeed in silencing dissent. But what the party apparently failed to take into consideration is the current women’s-rights climate in China. Its actions hit an already aching, raw nerve. And so a domestic #MeToo scandal exploded into an international cause célèbre.

While the patriarchal nature of Chinese society is well known, Ms. Peng’s case is the rare, revelatory moment that exposes how much China’s all-male rulers depend on the subjugation of women to ensure the Communist Party’s longevity.

Things have only worsened under President Xi Jinping, architect of a state-run masculinity campaign.

Women are severely underrepresented in national politics: There is one woman on the 25-member Politburo. Female representation on the 204-member Central Committee, the largest of the party’s political bodies, has declined over the past decade, to 10 currently from 13 in 2012.

Broader gender inequality also has worsened. Women’s labor-force participation has fallen to 60.5 percent in 2019 from 73 percent in 1990, according to the World Bank. China is in the bottom third of all countries evaluated for their gender disparities, according to the World Economic Forum.

The grim prospects for Chinese women are particularly jarring given the prominent role of feminism in China’s revolutionary history. Women’s emancipation was a central goal not just for activists in the May Fourth movement of 1919 but throughout the Communist revolution, culminating in the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

China’s ruler Mao Zedong famously proclaimed that “women hold up half the sky.” Propaganda images in the 1950s and ’60s showed smiling, muscular female welders and factory workers laboring to boost industrial production.

But today’s Communist Party appears to want women to be obedient wives and mothers. In his International Women’s Day address this year, Mr. Xi barely mentioned working women’s contributions to economic development.

Therein lies the tinder that has fueled the current feminist fire around Ms. Peng’s case. It also should have informed the government’s response, since those same conditions and authoritarian overreach landed the Communist Party in a similar mess in 2015. That’s when Chinese authorities jailed five female activists for planning to commemorate International Women’s Day by handing out stickers against sexual harassment on public transportation.

At the time, the five were almost completely unknown. But other feminists created the term “Feminist Five” to shine a media spotlight on the jailed women.

Inside China, the injustice invigorated activists, marking the beginning of a significant feminist movement. As internet censors worked to shut down expressions of solidarity with the five, the term “feminist” (“nüquan zhuyi zhe”) itself became a sensitive keyword.

Since then, organized feminist activists have tapped into the broad discontent felt by Chinese women and developed a level of influence that is highly unusual for any social movement in China.

The government has responded by shuttering women’s-rights and L.G.B.T.Q.-rights centers, deactivating feminist social media accounts and tightening control over gender-studies courses. The government crackdown on feminist organizing intensified earlier this year. One #MeToo activist, Sophia Huang Xueqin, was reportedly arrested under the charge of “inciting subversion of state power.”

It’s telling, though, that neither her case nor the few other #MeToo cases that broke through state media censorship — like the rape allegation against an executive at the tech giant Alibaba — have had the explosive impact of Ms. Peng’s.

That’s because none hold such potentially enormous implications for the Chinese Communist Party’s future. The party derives its legitimacy in part from its ability to control and finesse (all) narratives, through censorship and other authoritarian means. But with Ms. Peng, it has lost that control. If more women are inspired and able to speak out, the party might not be able to get it back.

Sports celebrities such as Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova have tweeted support for Ms. Peng. The Biden administration called on Beijing to offer “verifiable proof” Ms. Peng is safe.

To be sure, there’s always a chance the government could take even harsher action to crush the #MeToo movement.

The party leadership is certainly spooked. Acknowledging Ms. Peng’s allegations of assault might delegitimize their hold on power. Staying the course could infuriate more people, driving them to activism.

Chinese feminists have been tweeting out pictures of Ms. Peng projected onto walls, with slogans like “Chinese Women Breaking the Silence” and “The Voiceless Rise Up!”

Their words echo those of the feminist revolutionary Qiu Jin in the early 20th century: “Arise, arise, Chinese women arise! … Chinese women will throw off their shackles and stand up with passion,” she wrote. “They will ascend the stage of the new world, where the heavens have mandated that they reconsolidate the nation.”

Just a few years later, Chinese women and men fighting for greater freedoms helped bring down the last imperial dynasty.

Leta Hong Fincher (@LetaHong) is the author of “Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China” and “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.”

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