What the Peng Shuai Scandal Is Really About

The disappearance of the Chinese tennis star is an embarrassment to Beijing—and undercuts its campaign to present the Chinese system as a model for the world.

Peng Shuai serves during her ladies' singles second-round match against Caroline Garcia of France during day five of the 2018 French Open.
Xin Li / Getty

Every now and then, China’s Communist insiders, in their frantic attempts to shield themselves against international criticism, inadvertently let slip what truly scares them. So it was recently in the tragic case of Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star who disappeared after accusing one of China’s most senior leaders of sexual assault. The scandal has embarrassed the Communist Party and posed a new threat to Beijing’s already beleaguered Olympic Winter Games.

Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of the Global Times, a Communist Party–run news outlet, tweeted that “as a person who is familiar with Chinese system, I don’t believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression.” Later, in response to a Peng supporter, he added, “You should understand China, including understanding how the system you dislike has promoted the actual rights of the 1.4 billion Chinese.” And again: “Some Western forces are coercing Peng Shuai and an institution, forcing them to help demonize China’s system.”

Hu doth protest too much. The unfolding saga is all about China’s political and social systems. Peng, whose true status and whereabouts remain unknown, has ripped the curtain away from the dark and nasty world of the Communist Party’s inner sanctum, exposing its inherent iniquities and abuses of power to an extent few other incidents in recent times have. Out have spilled the raw realities of a Chinese society in which women are victimized and have no voice; its rulers can act with impunity, and their highest priority is to protect themselves from scrutiny by either the international community or their own citizens. And yet, despite closing ranks around a more and more desperate (and amazingly amateurish) propaganda campaign, they have not been able to pull the curtain back over the mess.

For the country’s president, Xi Jinping, and its other senior leaders, the scandal could not have erupted at a more sensitive moment. They have already been parrying calls to boycott the Winter Games, scheduled for February, in protest of the country’s abysmal human-rights record—calls given more weight and urgency by Peng’s ordeal. At the very least, the incident may taint a sports spectacle that the regime had hoped would showcase the wonders of a new rich and powerful China, much as the 2008 Games held in Beijing were a coming-out party for a rejuvenated nation. More broadly, the embarrassment undercuts Beijing’s widening global campaign to present its governance system as more just than chaotic American democracy, and thus a superior model for the rest of the world. It’s therefore a setback for China in its confrontation with the United States and quest to elevate the stature of authoritarian rule on the international stage.

The Peng saga began with a social-media post. Early this month, Peng, a former world No. 1 player in doubles, alleged on Weibo, China’s censored version of Twitter, that the former vice premier Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted her. “That afternoon I didn’t agree, and I kept crying,” she wrote. Peng revealed some sordid details. The alleged attack took place at Zhang’s home, as someone guarded the door, according to Peng. She also described a consensual affair she’d had with Zhang—Peng wasn’t exact about the dates or timeline—with the full knowledge of Zhang’s wife, whom Peng calls “Auntie Kang.” “You played with me, and dumped me when you are done with me,” Peng wrote.

The natural next step, especially in the #MeToo era, would be to launch an inquiry into Peng’s charges. But that’s not how the Communist Party responded. In the eyes of its top leaders, Peng had tarnished them, the party, and the nation. The rights of an individual—even one of the country’s most prominent sports stars—can never rank above the interests of the party, which to its leadership are equivalent to the interests of China. Moreover, taking her claims seriously might encourage more whistleblowers to reveal other skeletons in the Communist closet. The post vanished, and so did Peng.

The global public noticed her disappearance, and a #WhereIsPengShuai movement began online. But the person who gave the effort real heft is an unlikely figure: Steve Simon, the chief executive officer of the Women’s Tennis Association. He demanded proof that Peng was safe and had freedom of action, and an investigation into her accusation. He also threatened to withdraw his business from the country. That step would potentially sacrifice some serious cash. In 2018, the WTA signed a deal to hold its prestigious Finals in China for 10 years. But Simon insists he would choose principle over profit.

“If anyone wants to question our fortitude behind a statement like that, they can certainly try to,” Simon said in a televised interview. “We have to start, as a world, making decisions that are based upon right and wrong, period. And we can’t compromise that.” Peng’s case, he continued, is “bigger than the business.”

China’s leaders, incapable of conceding to foreign pressure, refused to cooperate and instead launched a propaganda campaign through state-controlled media outlets to try to convince the world that Peng was safe and sound. Ineptly conceived, it failed miserably. An email purportedly written by Peng, and released by a Chinese television network, asserted her well-being and retracted her allegation against Zhang in language too stilted to be credible. The Global Times’ Hu passed around videos supposedly showing Peng at a Beijing restaurant, one of which featured dinner companions who were unusually fixated on the date—Peng might as well have been holding up a newspaper. The only people fooled seemed to be the officials of the International Olympic Committee, who, probably desperate to rescue the Winter Games, participated in the charade by holding a video call with Peng—and then endured an avalanche of international criticism. Somehow, though, Peng has never found the time to speak with Steve Simon, who hasn’t bought any of it. A growing list of prominent supporters, including the Biden administration and Serena Williams, have expressed their concern for Peng.

Unfortunately, her ordeal tells us quite a bit about Chinese society today. Sexual violence and harassment are not taken seriously enough; many victims find their plight ignored, or worse. In one high-profile example, a Beijing court recently rejected a case brought by Zhou Xiaoxuan against a famous television anchor, whom she accused of sexually assaulting her in a dressing room. The journalist Sophia Huang Xueqin, a well-known #MeToo activist who has helped women report cases of sexual abuse, is being charged by Chinese authorities with subversion. Earlier this year, a female employee of the e-commerce giant Alibaba posted an account on the company’s internal website of an alleged sexual assault by a manager during a business trip, adding that she had reported the incident to company officials but no action was taken. Alibaba eventually sacked the accused manager, as well as 10 employees who had leaked the account to the public. Prosecutors dropped the case against the manager.

The Peng story also shows that China’s leadership will tolerate no challenge to its authority, no matter how apolitical. Peng is not aiming to bring down the Communist regime. She’s not advocating for democracy, or calling for reform, or even directly standing up for women’s rights. Yet she is being treated as if she is. For a political party that presents itself as infallible, anything that suggests otherwise is perceived as dangerous. The corollary to this rule is that the party’s most senior leaders, especially those with the right connections and relationships, can act as they wish, without fear of public scrutiny or reproach. Perhaps at some point the party will quietly punish Zhang (less for any sex crime than because his poor judgment left the party vulnerable). But, at least for now, the party will prioritize fixing its image over addressing any wrongdoing, let alone wider discrimination against women.

The Communist Party is equally resistant to challenges from abroad. The conflict between Beijing and the WTA could probably be resolved if Peng were to hop on the phone with Simon. But to China’s leaders, that would be tantamount to an admission of guilt and a surrender to foreign forces, and therefore unacceptable. Instead, China’s top cadres assume they are strong enough, and their economy is big enough, to eventually browbeat the world into silence.

They’re not entirely wrong. The Peng situation seems unlikely to derail the upcoming Olympics (though it might make them more controversial). Still, there will be a cost. If a settlement can’t be reached with the WTA, and Simon follows through on his threat and ends the tour’s operations in China, the government’s treatment of Peng will have done serious damage to China’s standing in international professional sports. Simon’s action would put pressure on other sports organizations to follow his lead. The loss for China would go beyond financial, or even reputational. It would be a sign of how Beijing’s human-rights abuses are souring its relations with much of the world at a moment when it is striving to claim world leadership.

And then there is Peng’s personal tragedy. The most to hope for is that Peng has let other women in China know they are not alone, at least for a fleeting moment. The Communist Party will eventually recover from her admissions; Peng herself may not. She will likely never be forgiven for airing the imperial court’s dirty laundry.

Even as she typed her fateful message, she feared it would come to nothing. “It doesn’t matter if I’m hitting a rock with an egg, or being a moth that flies towards the flame,” she wrote, addressing Zhang. “I am telling the truth about what happened between us. With your intelligence and wits I am sure you will either deny it, or blame it on me.”

“You always say you hope your mother in heaven could bless you,” she continued. “Do you still have the courage to face your mother after what you have done in your lifetime? We sure all like to pretend we are virtuous ...” Especially the party.