On November 2nd, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai publicly accused her country’s former vice premier of sexual assault. This has, according to the New York Times, ignited an “online firestorm of attention to a #MeToo allegation that for the first time touched the pinnacles of political power.”
On an online platform similar to Twitter, Peng described the assault by Zhang Gaoli. Although the post was removed within minutes, her allegations spread through the country’s tightly censored internet. However, screenshots initially circulated across social media and in private chats have been censored too, along with any posts referring to the case. Now, searches of her name and even the word “tennis” appear to be blocked, according to the B.B.C.
Peng’s case emerges in a time when the #MeToo movement is trying to find a voice in China, where discussing male misconduct, particularly by politicians, is difficult. Never before has an accusation of sexual misconduct been made publicly against a senior political leader, C.N.N. claims.
“[T]he allegations are not shocking in substance but are shocking in the target,” Bill Bishop, founder of China-focused online newsletter Sinocism, said.
However, things are changing. The #MeToo movement is developing in China and empowering women like Peng. “The impact of #MeToo has been accumulating for three years,” activist Lü Pin told the B.B.C. “When the first women began talking about their experiences three years ago, no one could have imagined that it would reach this high level.”
The movement seems to have given women strength, allowing them to reveal the secrets they have had to keep. As Peng wrote, “I know that for someone of your eminence, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid. But I’ll tell the truth about you.”
Yet, the last three years have highlighted how difficult it is for women to receive justice for the violations done to them. In 2018, as #MeToo gained force in China, Zhou Xiaoxuan was one of many women who shared accounts of sexual harassment, according to the BBC. In a 3,000-word essay, Zhou accused a T.V. broadcaster host of sexually harassing her when she visited his dressing room to interview him in 2014. When she reported the incident to the police, Zhou was told to keep it to herself, as the man was a national example of “positive energy.” During the trial, the court rejected her request to label the case as a sexual harassment lawsuit and gave her little opportunity to speak, blocking her efforts to present evidence such as video footage of the area outside the dressing room.
A high bar for evidence, which tends to demand video recordings or photographs of the actual incident, also puts a heavy burden of proof on plaintiffs to prove their case. When there is evidence, the punishment for the perpetrator is low. In October, prosecutors dropped charges against a man accused of raping a colleague on a work trip. This was even though police investigations found the man had “committed indecencies” with her. The man was eventually fired from his employment and detained for 15 days.
Cases such as these show why only very few reports of sexual harassment in China have made it to court. The truth is that most women who do come forward are ridiculed, both in court and online. Many lose their jobs and are rejected by their friends and families. Yet, brave women in China have managed to speak out, despite the hardships they know they will have to endure. Peng and Zhou are inspiring examples of strength, encouraged by the powerful movement of women around the world saying that enough is enough.