Peng Shuai Allegations Put Spotlight on Chinese Regime’s Corruption, Factional Intrigue

Unprecedented accusation of sexual assault against one of the Communist Party’s former top leaders could have far-reaching effects beyond the international uproar over tennis star’s treatment by Beijing
By Leon Wright
Leon Wright
Leon Wright
Leon Wright is a freelance contributor to The Epoch Times. He covers Chinese politics, culture, and current affairs.
November 29, 2021 Updated: November 29, 2021

Weeks have passed since Chinese women’s tennis champion Peng Shuai accused Zhang Gaoli—the country’s former vice premier—of coercing her into sex in the course of an on-and-off affair, yet the scandal continues to produce international fallout.

According to Peng, 35, who posted her allegations on Nov. 2 to China’s Twitter-like social media platform Weibo, she and the 75-year-old Zhang had begun seeing each other and had consensual sex more than a decade ago. But when they reunited following his retirement in 2018, he took advantage of her.

“If you had never planned to take responsibility, why did you come back for me [and] take me to your home … ” Peng wrote, adding that Zhang’s wife Kang Jie helped “keep watch” for him outside a bedroom.

“That afternoon, I didn’t consent and kept crying,” Peng’s Weibo post reads.

Despite continuing the affair due to “harboring the same feelings” she had for Zhang—previously, Peng expressed dissatisfaction with the relationship, in which she had no status and was often berated by Kang. Peng’s post, which was deleted by censors around 10 minutes after publication, indicated she had decided to go public with her story after arguing with Zhang at the end of October.

Peng then disappeared from public view for nearly three weeks, only to recently reemerge via a video appearance.

Zhang served as Chinese senior vice premier between 2013 and 2018 and held a concurrent post on the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Party’s most powerful decision-making body. Many observers have noted that Peng’s public allegation is an unprecedented move by a mainland Chinese resident against a retired top Party leader.

“Even if it’s like striking a stone with an egg, and courting self-destruction like a moth to the flame, I will tell the truth about you,” she wrote.

Controlled Communication

Foreign governments and sporting organizations have cast doubt on Beijing’s assurances that Peng is safe after the star disappeared from public view.

On Nov. 27, a spokesperson for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) stated that “the WTA remains concerned about her ability to communicate freely, openly, and directly,” as “it was clear her responses [to two emails] were influenced by others.”

The authenticity of photos and videos produced by Beijing and Chinese state media to show that the three-time Olympic athlete remains active and free have also been called into question.

“It was good to see Peng Shuai in recent videos, but they don’t alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion,” a WTA spokeswoman said in an email.

Steve Simon, chairman of the WTA, scrutinized a half-hour call on Nov. 21 in which Peng told the International Olympic Committee that she was safe and at home in Beijing. The IOC’s decision to hold the call despite being unable to confirm whether Peng was in a position to speak freely was met with criticism.

Prior to that, on Nov. 17, the state-run China Global Television Network (CGTN) reported on an email supposedly sent by Peng to Simon walking back her allegation of sexual assault against Zhang.

The Chinese regime is getting ready to hold the 2022 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Beijing in February. However, the upcoming event has been fraught with controversy since even before Peng’s post in early November, with mounting international anger over the CCP’s human rights abuses, military threats, bombastic diplomacy, and cover-up of the COVID-19 outbreak that contributed to the spread of the pandemic.

On Nov. 18, President Joe Biden told reporters that he was considering a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics, which would allow American athletes to compete in the Games, but bar U.S. officials from attending.

NBA star Enes Kanter, who recently demanded the CCP “stop murdering for organs,” called upon the IOC to move the Games from Beijing in protest for Peng, writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Nov. 21 that “all the gold medals in the world aren’t worth selling your values and your principles to the Chinese Communist Party.”

Political Ramifications

In China, the accusation leveled against Zhang Gaoli represents a rare public rebuke of a top Communist Party official, whether retired or still on the job. Yet Peng’s fame and the impending Olympics put Beijing in a tight spot.

According to Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, the CCP would not “want this international PR disaster right before an Olympics that looks likely to be complicated anyway.”

Sullivan, speaking with the Financial Times, also indicated that there could be “‘political factors’ at play” that would reduce the importance of the “public relations aspect” relative to internal regime politics.

Zhang has been noted for his work on China’s economic reforms when he served in key provinces, including Guangdong in the south and Shandong in the east, prior to his appointment as CCP boss of Tianjin megacity in 2007 and then promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee.

However, experts also identify Zhang as an associate of former communist party head Jiang Zemin, whom is involved in a factional battle with current party leader Xi Jinping

According to Brookings Institution China academic Cheng Li, in a Nov. 26 Financial Times report,  Zhang’s business ties and named him as a key protege of Zeng Qinghong, the Chinese former vice president who is widely regarded as second to Jiang in a faction centered around the two retired leaders.

Cercius Group, a Montreal-based consultancy, called Zhang “pure ‘jiang-pai’”—the Mandarin term for “Jiang faction.”

“Zhang was never said to be an ally of Xi in the academic field of Chinese elite literature, nor in the Taiwanese Chinese-elite literature, or even in the Hong Kong based analysis,” the Financial Times report quoted Cercius as saying.

Beijing’s treatment of Peng is likely a matter of regime protocol: “Of course, you have to unleash the censor apparatus to show that ‘we are protecting our own,’” Cercius said. “But in reality, Xi now has the momentum to punish Zhang if he wants to.”

A potential investigation or trial of Zhang would represent a fresh escalation in Xi’s nine-year-long anti-corruption campaign. Though thousands of senior officials have been taken down since Xi came to power in 2012, the only former Politburo Standing Committee member to be purged thus far is Zhou Yongkang, who once controlled the CCP organization overseeing all Chinese judicial and security forces. Zhou is now serving life in prison.

Leon Wright
Leon Wright is a freelance contributor to The Epoch Times. He covers Chinese politics, culture, and current affairs.