How is China dealing with its biggest #MeToo case?

How is China dealing with its biggest #MeToo case?

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s disappearance after accusing a former high-ranking government official of sexual assault has prompted public outcry in countries around the world, and the Women’s Tennis Association to boycott China. But in her native country, those allegations were scrubbed from the internet. What does the episode have to tell us about official attitudes towards the #MeToo movement, and threats to Communist Party elites in China? We talked to Eurasia Group analyst Allison Sherlock to get a better understanding of Beijing’s reaction, and what might happen next.

Why such a heavy-handed response?

Beijing has historically been hostile to feminist activism, and has censored other #MeToo statements over the past three years. But some high-profile harassment and assault cases have made it to court or become the subject of public discussion, allowing some room for a fledgling #MeToo movement to develop. In September, a Beijing court rejected a sexual assault case brought against a prominent television host, which galvanized online awareness of the issue.

But Peng’s case was even more serious because it accused a senior party leader, Zhang Gaoli, who was the party secretary of Tianjin at the time of the first alleged assault. Later he became executive vice premier on the top Politburo Standing Committee, making him the seventh-ranked official in China.

Though it’s not unheard of for the government to acknowledge wrongdoing by top officials — as when Zhou Yongkang was imprisoned for corruption in 2015 — it is unlikely Beijing will do so in Zhang’s case. Such a move would invite unwelcome scrutiny of elite transgressions by an official who recently served under President Xi Jinping, at a time when Xi is preparing to secure a norm-defying third term as leader at the 20th CCP Congress next fall.

How successful has the censorship campaign been?

China’s vast information control apparatus quickly sprang into action by deleting Peng’s initial social media post on 2 November and has attempted to take down any related posts since then. Yet at times the censors have struggled to keep up. Peng's initial post circulated widely on social media before it was taken down. Since then, various posts about Peng or the unprecedented decision by the WTA to suspend events in China have briefly appeared. These have provided short windows of opportunity for public comment, and savvy social media users have worked to disguise their related posts or messages.

From the comments that have been captured, it is clear Peng's case has struck a chord with individuals invested in China’s #MeToo movement.

What happens next?

Beijing’s external propaganda outlets have made some attempts to dismiss the controversy. They have tried to convince the rest of the world that Peng is fine by sharing what appeared to be carefully stage-managed messages, photos, and calls that present her as going about her normal life. Domestically, however, censors will continue to suppress all discussion of the issue. Even Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian's criticism of foreign efforts to "politicize" Peng's allegations have been scrubbed from the record, highlighting the unusual nature of this situation. Chinese authorities have often seized on what they refer to as foreign interference in their affairs to stoke nationalist sentiment at home and rally support for the government, but Beijing will even avoid this tactic and maintain silence on the issue.

This information blackout will extend to the WTA boycott. Fortunately for Chinese officials, the country’s strict COVID policies are a convenient excuse they can offer to domestic audiences for why scheduled WTA matches will no longer be taking place.

For the international community, much of the focus will be on the extent of the political and financial fallout suffered by the WTA, the first international sporting organization to willingly sacrifice access to the huge Chinese market to stand up for human rights. Up until now, most have shown themselves willing to make compromises to maintain this access.

What about the Olympics?

Peng’s case will fuel more calls for boycotts and other actions at the February Winter Olympics in Beijing to protest human rights abuses in China. Several Western countries led by the US have already announced a diplomatic boycott. The International Olympic Committee — under pressure to show it is taking Peng’s allegations seriously — has held a couple of video calls with the tennis star and reported to the world that she is doing well, although the WTA has said there is no independent verification that Peng’s appearances were not coerced. At the Games, athletes could express their support for Peng in interviews, on clothing and on banners, to name just a few possibilities. The issue is almost certain to come up in foreign media coverage of the event.

What will happen to Peng?

The tennis star is not the first celebrity to disappear from public view in recent years. Through a combination of threats, coverage blackouts by state media, and subsequent self-censorship, authorities can silence public figures. But Peng’s international stature could spare her from a long banishment. Her public return, if it ever happens, will likely be delayed at least until after the Olympics, where global attention will be focused on China and its athletes. But she may never return to the international tennis circuit.

Allison Sherlock is China associate at Eurasia Group.

People working at computers in a room labeled Malware Lab

Microsoft observed destructive malware in systems belonging to several Ukrainian government agencies and organizations that work closely with the Ukrainian government. The Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) published a technical blog post detailing Microsoft’s ongoing investigation and how the security community can detect and defend against this malware. Microsoft shared this information over the weekend to help others in the cybersecurity community look out for and defend against these attacks. To read more visit Microsoft On the Issues.

President Vladimir Putin

No one knows whether Russian President Vladimir Putin plans on invading Ukraine. But the president of the United States sure seems to think this is a real possibility, saying Wednesday that Putin will likely "move in" in the near term. Biden, prone to political gaffes, was then forced to awkwardly walk back comments that Russia would face milder consequences from the West in the event of a "minor incursion."

The timing of this blunder is... not great. It comes just as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepares to meet his Russian counterpart on Friday in hopes of lowering the temperature after recent diplomatic efforts in Geneva were deemed a failure by Moscow.

Indeed, with the Kremlin having amassed at least 100,000 troops surrounding Ukraine on three sides, the growing threat is impossible to ignore. So what would a Russian military offensive into Ukraine actually look like, and how might the West respond?

More Show less

Omicron has arrived. It's more contagious, but less severe. Some parts of the world are even looking forward to the pandemic becoming endemic.

Not China. Xi Jinping's zero-COVID strategy has worked wonders until now, but it's unlikely to survive omicron, explains Ian Bremmer on GZERO World.

More Show less

Chilling at the beach, retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel is so over politics. Or is she?


Subscribe to GZERO Media's YouTube channel to get notifications when new videos are published.

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi everybody. Happy Tuesday after the long weekend for those of us that had a long weekend. I thought I would kick us off with the first major foreign policy crisis of the Biden administration. And that is of course, Russia-Ukraine. Afghanistan, of course, was a debacle, but not exactly a global crisis. This of course has the potential to really change the way we think about European security and about US relations with the other major nuclear power in the world. So, I would say that the level of concern is even higher and there are a lot of things we can say.
More Show less
What We’re Watching: Xinjiang at the Beijing Olympics, Boris in deep(er) trouble, Indonesia’s new capital

Selling Xinjiang. Xi Jinping — a man well known for both his grand vision of China’s future, and for his willingness to get large numbers of people to do things they might not otherwise do — said in 2018 that he wanted 300 million Chinese people to participate in winter sports. The Chinese government announced this week that this goal has been met in honor of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, which open in China’s capital on February 4. Multinational companies are consistently impressed by the commercial opportunities created when 300 million people decide to try new things. But it’s an inconvenient truth that most of China’s most abundant snow and best ski slopes are found in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, a place where Western governments and human rights organizations have accused Beijing of imprisoning more than one million minority Uyghurs in re-education camps. In these prisons, critics say inmates have experienced “torture, and inhumane and degrading treatment.” As China’s government opens new profit opportunities in Xinjiang, multinational corporations will face pressure from multiple directions not to invest there.

More Show less
Hard Numbers: Tongan emergency fundraising, EU docks Poland pay, new Colombian presidential hopeful, Turkey gets UAE lifeline

345,000: As of Wednesday afternoon ET, Tonga's Olympic flag-bearer has raised more than $345,000 online to help the victims of Saturday's volcanic eruption and tsunami. Pita Taufatofua, a taekwondo fighter and cross-country skier, has not yet heard from his father, governor of the main Tongan island of Haapai.

More Show less

Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week, discussing Boris Johnson's tenuous status as UK PM, US Secretary of State Blinken's visit to Ukraine, and the volcano eruption in Tonga:

Will Boris Johnson resign?

It certainly looks that way. He's hanging on by his fingernails. He's losing members of Parliament. He's giving shambolic media interviews. In fact, I think the only people that don't want him to resign at this point is the Labour Party leadership, because they think the longer he holds on, the better it is for the UK opposition. But no, he certainly looks like he's going. The only question is how quickly. Is it within a matter of weeks or is it after local elections in May? But feel pretty confident that the days of Boris Johnson are numbered.

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal


Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

China vs COVID in 2022

GZERO World Clips

COVID at the Beijing Winter Olympics

GZERO World Clips


Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal