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7am Podcast

Linda Jaivin on what happened to one of China’s biggest sports stars.

The disappearance of a Chinese tennis star



Earlier this month, Peng Shuai, one of China’s most successful tennis stars posted a statement on social media, detailing allegations of sexual harrassment levelled against a powerful Chinese politician. 

Half an hour later, the post, and her entire, feed disappeared. 

Then she did too. 

Today, Linda Jaivin, on what happened to one of China’s biggest sports stars.

 

Guest: Writer and author of The Shortest History of China, Linda Jaivin.

 

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones.  This is 7am.

 

One evening, earlier this month, Peng Shuai, one of China’s most successful tennis stars, posted a statement on social media, detailing allegations of sexual harrassment. Allegations levelled against one of the most powerful men in China.

 

Half an hour later the post, and her entire feed, disappeared.

 

Then she did too. 

 

Today, writer and author of ‘The Shortest History of China’, Linda Jaivin, on what happened to one of China’s biggest sports stars.

 

It’s Monday November 29. 

 

And a warning: this episode contains descriptions of sexual harrasment and assault.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY:

Linda, let's start with Peng Shaui - the Chinese tennis player. She’s a very successful athlete - can you tell me more about her, and her tennis career?  

 

LINDA: 

So Peng Shuai is a 35 year old tennis player, she's taken to number one titles in the doubles category.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Commentator #1: 

“Her confidence at the net, an instrumental part of her game, was reaping the rewards for her and her partner...” 

 

LINDA:

She's very well respected and liked in the international tennis community. 

 

Archival Tape -- Peng Shuai:

“Yeah, I was really, really happy and I really want to thank my coach, but I think he left and then, yeah, and then, yeah, the French Open is my first time. Thank you for everybody...”

 

LINDA:

and very, very famous and well-liked at home. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Commentator #2:

“Delighted to see you tomorrow. And the big applause for Peng Shuai from China.” 

 

LINDA:

But nobody knew that she's been living a double life since she was 25. When one of the most powerful men in China, 40 years her senior, Zhang Gaoli apparently approached her, became friends with her and forced her more or less to have sex with him. They then began a relationship, and it was obviously a very secret relationship. It left her feeling humiliated, it left her feeling used and confused, and she is left so traumatised that she writes a post on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter. 

 

RUBY:

Mmhmm, so this post that Peng Shuai makes on Weibo - can you tell me what it says? 

 

LINDA: 

Yes, the post, which only appeared on her Weibo account for a very, very short time before being wiped from it, is basically a confession and an accusation all at once. 

 

And it starts in a very confused manner, which is very typical of women who blame themselves for things that happen to them when they're pushed into sexual relationships by powerful men. 

 

So she begins saying, ‘I know I can't explain this clearly. It won't matter. I still have to say it. I'm a hypocrite. I'm not a good woman. I'm a very, very bad woman’. She says ‘three years ago, you got somebody in the tennis centre at Tianjin to contact me and ask me to play tennis with you in Beijing’. 

 

‘When we finished, you and your wife took me home, you took me into your room and then you wanted to have sex with me’. And she describes crying. She's not happy. She doesn't want to do this. She can't believe the wife is allowing this, somebody guarding the door. It's unclear whether it's the wife or somebody else. 

 

Finally, she agreed to have sex with him. She was terrified and anxious. So it really made her feel dirty and humiliated and she finally had to get all of this out in public. 

 

RUBY: 

Mmm okay. And so the man that she’s accusing in this post - Zhang Gaoli. He is - at one point - one of the most powerful men in the country. Can you tell me a bit more about him, and his rise to power China? 

 

LINDA: 

Okay, so his history is quite interesting because he began life as a the son of poor peasants in Fujian province, which is in China's southeast. He graduated his studies in 1970, and soon after that he was assigned to a job at Sinopec, which is the state owned petroleum and oil firm.

 

His career as a politician then begins in earnest. He begins working in moming and in Guangdong province. His his career just keeps going up and up. He's working in the party and state organisations. 

 

And he served in the Politburo from 2012 to 2018 and then retired. The Politburo Standing Committee is the most powerful body in China. 

 

But the thing is that anybody who has honourably retired from the Politburo Standing Committee is still considered a symbol of the party. That's really important. So he has to be protected. 

 

RUBY:

And how unusual is it for an allegation like this, an allegation against someone as senior as Zhang Gaoli to come out of China? 

 

LINDA: 

Unprecedented. 

 

The MeToo movement in China, which has been going since around 2018, hasn't had a really good track record in getting results, you know, in terms of justice for women. Generally speaking, the women are shut down and sometimes punished in various ways. But this is absolutely the first time that a MeToo accusation has come out against a member as senior as Zhang Gaoli. 

 

RUBY:

Mm so we have this tennis champion accusing one of the most powerful men in China of sexual assault in a social media post. As you say, her post about that disappears almost immediately after it's published. So what happens next? 

 

LINDA: 

So what happened next was she was instantly erased from the internet, so you couldn't find anything about her. So people kept demanding, Where is she? 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1: 

“Where is she silenced and disappeared for speaking out?” 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2:

“Former world number one doubles champion hasn't been seen or heard from in weeks”

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #3: 

“It's been almost two weeks,  the world hasn't heard from Peng Shuai.”

 

LINDA:

The tennis world begins getting worried. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #3:

“Osaka sent out this message with the hashtag: Where is Peng Shuai?” 

 

LINDA: 

People like Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.

 

Archival Tape -- 

“This week, Novak Djokovic spoke out.” 

 

Archival Tape -- Novak Djokovic:

“I mean, it's it's it's just it's terrible that, you know, I can imagine just how her family feels. You know, that she's missing.”  

 

LINDA: 

People start asking questions and there's no word from her. Where did she go? So hashtag, Where is Peng Shuai? becomes a thing. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #3:

“This hashtag has now become a global campaign…”

 

LINDA: 

I mean, she went incommunicado. And why would a popular tennis player go incommunicado, not talking to the Women's Tennis Association or anything like that if she wasn't in trouble, if she wasn't being watched and told and threatened.

 

RUBY: 

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY: 

Linda, Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player, isn’t seen after making a social media post alleging sexual assualt. We then hear from high profile tennis players - people like Novak Djokavic - they raise the alarm, as does the US-based Women’s Tennis Association. Can you tell me more about the kind of pressure we see - what kind of leverage does the tennis world have in a situation like this?   

 

LINDA: 

So in the past, sports associations that have had any kind of trouble with China, like when an NBA player speaks out in favour of the Hong Kong protesters and so on, China demands apologies and the sports association doesn't knuckle down, they bow down. Now, the WTA, the Women's Tennis Association has been remarkable. 

 

Archival Tape -- Steve Simon (Women’s Tennis Association):

“You know, we want to make sure that Peng Shuai is, first of all, safe. The second side of it is that we would like and demand that a transparent and full investigation of these allegations is made.”

 

LINDA: 

The Women’s Tennis Association, which has more than, I think, more than 10 events scheduled in China next year, has actually come out and made it clear that they will sacrifice all of that, if Peng Shuai is not safe and is not accounted for. Now this is highly unusual and it's amazing. 

 

Archival Tape -- Steve Simon (Women’s Tennis Association):

“You know, if it doesn't happen, as I've said, we are prepared to move on and deal with the challenges that will come with that and they will be significant.”

 

LINDA:

They made it very clear that for them, even though they'll lose a bucket load of money, they are willing to cancel 10+ events that they had scheduled in China next year. 

 

Archival Tape -- Steve Simon (Women’s Tennis Association):

“When you're dealing with an issue, however, of sexual assault and harassment, I don't believe decisions associated with that could be compromised.” 

 

LINDA:

And it was after the WTA demanded to know that she was safe, that these videos and so on began appearing. 

 

RUBY:

Mm - the videos - so these are released by Chinese State Media - seemingly in response to the pressure being enacted. Can you describe them to me, what do we see in them? 

 

LINDA:

So two of them are what you might expect. She's supposedly very recently appearing at a tennis event.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Commentator #1:

< announcing Peng Shuai in Mandarin >

 

LINDA:

In another one, she's signing outsized tennis balls for young fans. 

 

Archival Tape -- 

< young fans >

 

LINDA:

These are easily staged, managed. Now the one that they think is their ace up their sleeve, I suppose, is here. She is having a casual dinner with friends.

 

Archival Tape -- 

< restaurant atmosphere, speaking Mandarin >

 

The videos are quite interesting because the first one has her in a conversation and this man is talking, talking, talking. He's talking about next year's tournaments, blah blah blah. And then he says, he says, so today is November. It's November 20th, and the others are like, No, no, no, it's November 21st. And he's like, Oh yes, it's November 21st. 

 

Archival Tape -- 

< restaurant atmosphere, speaking Mandarin >

 

LINDA:

it's such a strange little bit of dialogue. Meanwhile, this lazy Susan on the table is slowly turning with these dishes. It's kind of surreal. And there's a lot of noise in the background. 

 

Now this is a really weird video, right? Why would you take a video like that and then release it? Oh, it's just the sort of thing we friends do. Well, who are these friends? These are all people who could be mobilised to have a dinner with her and take the video that is required. 

 

RUBY:

Mm and so these videos do you? Does anyone think that this is really just footage of Peng leaving her normal life going to tennis tournaments, going to dinner? Or is the view that these are staged videos? 

 

LINDA: 

Well, if you ask the Chinese government, it's completely normal, her going about her own life. But I think most people around the world who are concerned about this do not see any of this is convincing. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1:

“This rapid accumulation of state provided material does not convince the increasing numbers who are calling for independent proof”

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Commentator #2: 

“The whole thing is incredibly bizarre but creepy and sinister”

 

LINDA: 

The IOC, on the other hand, has been far more cautious because, of course, we're just weeks away from the Beijing Winter Olympics.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #3: 

The International Olympic Committee has said its president, Thomas Bach, has held a video call with the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who disappeared earlier this month. 

 

LINDA: 

The IOC had a half an hour phone call or video call with Peng Shuai, but we have not seen the transcript. They have not released a video of it. They have just said, Oh yeah, she's fine. Yeah, she's good, all good. But I think the IOC is in a really, really uncomfortable position right now. Biden is talking about a diplomatic boycott of the games, which means the athletes can go and play, but the U.S. won't send officials.

 

RUBY: 

Mm hmm. And so understanding that - how sensitive this is all becoming - the potential diplomatic repercussions - what does all of this mean for Peng Shuai? What is likely to happen to her - and is she in danger? 

 

LINDA: 

I don't know that she's in physical danger, but you know, you really don't know because this is such high stakes. 

 

They don't have anything to gain if she is physically hurt. They might try to smear her in some way. And maybe, maybe they discover that she's a tax evader, you know, and they can put her away for a while for that. 

 

But that would be, I think that would be if they felt pushed to an extreme. 

 

But she's not a dissident. This is the thing. So she has not set herself against the Communist Party. This is a personal thing.

 

She must have been just sitting there, stewing and in agony, and she puts out this post. 

 

And, you know, she said that she hated herself. 

 

She said she's extremely deprived of love. She has been from childhood because she was taken away from her home, where she left her home really early as Chinese athletes who are discovered as children do. So they're not in a loving environment anymore. This is a very vulnerable person. 

 

And so this post is a cry for help. It's a cry for justice. It's a cry for love. 

 

RUBY: 

Linda, thank you so much for your time. 

 

LINDA: 

Thank you. 

 

RUBY:

If this episode has raised issues for you, you can get support at 1800RESPECT. Those numbers are 1800 737 732. 

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[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

Also in the news today…

 

NSW and Victoria have introduced mandatory 72-hour isolation requirements for all international travellers, regardless of where they are departing from.

 

The new border rules have been announced as health officials try to ascertain the risk posed by the new Omicron variant of Covid-19, which is sparking alarm around the world.

 

The federal government has banned all arrivals from nine southern African nations, and has foreshadowed more travel bans.

 

Travel restrictions have been reintroduced in the United States and across Europe, as more cases of the Omicron variant were detected.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am

Guest

Linda Jaivin is the author of The Shortest History of China.