GONE GIRL
Marie Claire Australia|February 2022
Tennis player Peng Shuai is the latest high-profile case embroiled in China’s ongoing campaign of censorship. But what does the saga tell us about Beijng’s grip on power?
Luke Mintz and Sophia Yan

As a child in the enormous, crowded Chinese city of Tianjin, doctors told Peng Shuai she would never play tennis profes-sionally because of a heart defect. Unperturbed, she underwent heart surgery aged 12, and by 15 had broken into China’s national tennis scene. She became known for her ferocious style of play, and her rare tendency to return a serve with a two-handed forehand. In her late teens, she bristled at attempts by Communist Party apparatchiks to collect two-thirds of her earnings. Eventually, she was allowed to keep her money, as long as she “brought glory” upon China. By 27, she had won doubles at both Wimbledon and the French Open.

But on November 2 last year in Tianjin, her good fortune came to an end. In a lengthy blog posted to Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter), the 35-year-old described an incident from some years ago, claiming she had been forced into sex by retired Communist Party official Zhang Gaoli, while a guard stood watch outside the door. The abuse of power left her feeling “like a walking corpse”, she wrote. “I was so scared that afternoon. I never gave consent – crying the entire time.”

In her post, Peng said she could not produce any evidence to back her accusations but was determined to voice them. “Like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you,” she wrote.

Unfortunately for Peng, the man she accused – a married 75-year-old – is a former vice-premier of the Communist Party’s Politburo and an ally of President Xi Jinping. Her post was wiped from the internet within minutes, although screenshots continue to circulate. Peng then seemed to vanish into thin air.

Three weeks later, Chinese state broadcaster CGTN released a mysterious statement it claimed had been written by Peng, in which she reversed her claim of sexual assault, adding, “I’m not missing. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.” It was followed by purportedly new photos and video footage showing Peng in a accused, Zhang Gaoli.

Beijing restaurant with friends. China experts have expressed scepticism about the authenticity of both.

For Nathan Law, the Hong Kong pro-democracy dissident who fled to London in 2020, the statement bears all the hallmarks of a forced confession, a favoured tool of Chinese authorities. “Whenever a scandal is revealed, Chinese authorities silence or attack the victim,” Law says.

Experts suggest that Peng was probably abducted into the government’s program of “enforced disappearances”, known officially as RSDL: Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location. Usually, somebody who has criticised the Chinese regime vanishes for several months while they are interrogated in a nondescript government building. It is not quite as punishing as prison, although some inmates are beaten by guards while others are deprived of sleep. Then, they re-emerge in society with an outwardly different personality: their plucky mode of resistance replaced by a supine deference to Beijing authorities.

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