Allegations of sexual assault against a former top Chinese official rocketed through social media Wednesday as censors rushed to contain them, deleting even oblique references to the scandal.
Late Tuesday, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai wrote a long account on her verified Weibo page accusing former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her before the two began a years-long affair. Mr. Zhang, 75, was a member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee before he resigned from public office in 2018.
Ms. Peng, a former doubles No. 1, said the alleged assault occurred in Mr. Zhang’s house, when he was working in Tianjin, “more than 10 years ago.”
“I never consented that afternoon, crying all the time,” she wrote.
Her account could not be independently verified by The Globe and Mail. In the post, Ms. Peng noted that she would be unable to provide any evidence of her allegations. Neither she nor Mr. Zhang could be reached for comment.
Posted around 10 p.m. Tuesday, Ms. Peng’s account was deleted within an hour. As users began sharing screenshots on Weibo and other social media platforms, censors went into overdrive, blocking terms such as “tennis player” and Ms. Peng’s initials. No Chinese media outlet has yet mentioned the scandal.
While accusations of sexual misconduct involving top Chinese officials are not uncommon, they are typically aired as part of a corruption investigation against someone who has already fallen from grace. Mr. Zhang is by far the most senior figure to be accused in such a fashion without already facing some kind of internal Communist Party probe.
Yun Jiang, a researcher at Australian National University, wrote in a newsletter Wednesday that Ms. Peng’s accusations were all the more surprising “because it would take so much courage and bravery for the allegation to be made.
“Going against a senior CCP official (who is not already in trouble with the CCP) can ruin Peng’s life,” she wrote.
In her post, Ms. Peng appeared to acknowledge this, saying she doubted that Mr. Zhang would be afraid of her airing “the truth.”
“But even if I am like an egg hitting a rock or a moth fighting a flame, I will tell the truth about you,” she wrote.
Chinese feminist activist Lü Pin tweeted that Ms. Peng’s allegations were “very important.”
“They allow people to see the real side of China’s top leaders as never before,” she said. “They have always been this rotten and corrupt, including the exploitation of women, but this has always been hidden behind a dark curtain. That makes it all the more important to ‘speak up.’”
China’s #MeToo movement has made only modest progress in a society that remains deeply patriarchal. In August, Canadian-Chinese pop star Kris Wu was detained on suspicion of committing rape after an accuser came forward on social media. That same month, e-commerce giant Alibaba faced a reckoning of sorts over an alleged culture of forced drinking and sexual exploitation that a top executive described as “shameful.”
But there have also been setbacks. Feminist activists have been arrested or, like Ms. Lü, forced to go into exile overseas. Discussions around #MeToo are often subject to censorship.
In one of the most high-profile cases, a Beijing court ruled against accuser Zhou Xiaoxuan in September, saying there was insufficient evidence to support her claims.
Ms. Zhou, also known as Xianzi, had accused a prominent TV host of groping and forcibly kissing her. Since losing the case, she has said, she has faced widespread censorship. After the verdict, the nationalist state-run tabloid Global Times said “the #MeToo movement has not played a positive role in opposing sexual harassment in China.
“Some Western media outlets are deliberately trying to use the #MeToo movement as a tool to incite gender antagonism and even a ‘colour revolution’ in China,” the paper said. “But Chinese people have the ability to tell what is real and what is transgression in camouflaged clothes.”
The degree of censorship of Ms. Peng’s accusations suggests co-ordination by the central propaganda authorities. As well as individual posts being deleted on Weibo, commenting was disabled on posts by large sports accounts, including one owned by state broadcaster CCTV, which has more than 23.8 million followers.
Some social media users worried that even discussing the topic privately could be punished. In one group on the messaging app WeChat, a member urged people not to share anything more about Ms. Peng’s accusations.
“Please stop, if you dig more I think it will bring risk to our group,” they wrote.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.