Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accuses former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual coercion

China’s Peng Shuai serves during the match against Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard during the First Round of the 2019 Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia.

Former world No.1 tennis doubles player Peng Shuai, one of China’s biggest sporting stars, has publicly accused a former Chinese vice premier of forcing her into sex several years ago in a social media post that was later deleted.

According to a screenshot of her verified Weibo account late on Tuesday, Peng said that Zhang Gaoli, who became a member of the Politburo Standing Committee – China’s top decision-making body – coerced her into sex and they later had an on-off consensual relationship.

The post was deleted around half an hour after it was published, although searches for Peng’s name on China’s tightly controlled internet surged after the posting, and screenshots were shared among private WeChat groups and over iMessage.

China’s internet is heavily censored and the private lives of top leaders are an especially sensitive subject.

Peng, who said in the post that she could provide no evidence to back her allegations, did not respond to a request for comment sent to her Weibo account. Sports marketing agency APG, which says on its website that it represents her, did not respond to a request for comment.

China’s State Council Information Office did not immediately respond to requests for comment, including for comment from Zhang. When asked at a regular daily briefing about the Weibo post, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said he was not aware of the issue and that “this is not a question related to foreign affairs”.

Weibo and Tencent, which operates WeChat, did not respond to requests for comment.

Sexual harassment and assault were for years rarely broached in public in China until a #MeToo movement began in 2018, when a Beijing college student publicly accused her professor of sexual harassment. That spread to non-government organisations, media and other industries.

A Weibo timescale function showed that a hashtag of Peng Shuai’s name, which had few to no mentions prior to Tuesday, has racked up more than 20 million views since her post. Discussions of the hashtag surged around the time of Peng’s post, but later plummeted as posts on the topic were deleted.

By early Wednesday, searches for Peng’s name on Weibo yielded no results and discussions of the topic were blocked. Users of WeChat and QQ, another chat app, were blocked from sending the screenshots to each other.

While Peng’s Weibo account remained available, with earlier posts visible, the comment and repost functions were disabled.

Zhang, now 75, was a vice premier between 2013 and 2018 and had also been party secretary of the northeastern province of Shandong. He served on the Politburo Standing Committee between 2012 and 2017.

Peng was the world No.1 doubles player in 2014, the first Chinese player to achieve a top ranking, after winning the doubles titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.

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