EXPLAINER: The Peng Shuai case shows the obstacles Chinese women face

BEIJING (AP) — The controversy surrounding Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s accusations of sexual assault against a former senior politician continues to cast a shadow over the Beijing Winter Olympics as their kickoff nears. official dispatch on Friday.

In China, however, his case has drawn little attention amid the overwhelming force of official censorship. Yet it also highlights the obstacles Chinese women face when raising such claims, both in court and within a male-dominated social and political culture that views all dissent as a threat to the system tightly controlled and dominated by the Communist Party.

While the #MeToo movement grew in popularity when it launched in China in 2018, recent cases show that those early hopes for a meaningful shift in official attitudes may have been unrealistic.


Publicly presenting allegations can expose victims to a host of perils ranging from online abuse to job loss, counter-suits from those they accuse, and mere disappearance in the justice system.

In the case that first defined China’s #MeToo movement, activist Zhou Xiaoxuan sued state TV host Zhu Jun only after he sued her for defamation. She accused him of groping her when she was a young intern at CCTV.

After initially receiving public support and media coverage, Zhou now receives messages attacking him every day and has been banned from posting on his Weibo account – a Twitter-like platform – for a year.

Other cases also reflect the perils. Huang Xueqin, who publicly supported a woman when she accused a teacher of sexual assault, was arrested in September. Wang Jianbing, who helped women report sexual harassment, was detained with her. Neither has been heard from since.


Peng disappeared from public view last year after accusing former Communist Party official Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. His accusation was quickly scrubbed from the internet and his discussion remains heavily censored.

Zhang did not comment on the accusation posted on Peng’s official social media account and in later comments she appeared to deny making the claim while offering no explanation as to where it came from.

“First of all, I want to point out something that is very important. I never said that I wrote that someone had sexually assaulted me. I have to make this point very clearly,” Peng told a Singapore newspaper last month.

While the International Olympic Committee says it’s happy she’s doing well, the Women’s Tennis Association says it’s still insecure and has suspended all events in China this year, and possibly beyond. IOC President Thomas Bach plans to have a private dinner with Peng while in Beijing, although when and how this will happen remains a secret.


When a former employee of one of China’s best-known companies, Alibaba, couldn’t get human resources or management to handle her sexual assault accusation, she took a more direct approach. Standing in the cafeteria of the e-commerce giant’s headquarters, she cried out that she had been attacked by a colleague and a customer while on a business trip.

As a result, she was harassed online, accused of lying by the wives of the two men she accused, and slapped with a libel suit by an Alibaba vice president who was forced to resign. The final insult: the company fired her for spreading false information about her assault and how the company handled the issue.

Using only her surname, Zhou, to avoid further harassment, the woman says she is still awaiting justice from the courts. Although both men were detained, police dropped the case against their former colleague, although Alibaba later fired him and Zhou’s lawyer pushed for the case to be reopened. The client is in custody and a criminal case is pending.

“My attitude is resolute,” Zhou wrote in response to questions from The Associated Press. “I will not accept the outcome of the company’s unsympathetic, unreasonable and illegal way of handling this.”


Accusers face a heavy burden of proof in such cases, and although sexual harassment was recently defined by China’s extensive Civil Code, the national law remains weak as it provides no punishment.

Enforcement depends on local regulations and how the courts interpret the law and those regulations. Additionally, many companies do not have sexual harassment codes with explicit penalties and redress mechanisms.

As a result, very few cases make it to court. Many of these are countersuits brought by the person accused of abuse or harassment.

A recent report by Yale Law School researchers found only 83 civil cases in public Chinese court databases related to sexual harassment or sexual assault between 2018 and 2020. Among them, 77 were brought by the alleged harasser against businesses or victims. In only six cases did the victims sue their harassers.


While Chinese women are strongly represented in the workforce and in legislative bodies such as the National People’s Congress, they are largely absent from the highest levels of the Communist Party and government power.

Only one woman — Deputy Prime Minister Sun Chunlan — sits on the 25-member Politburo, and men make up the seven members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. China has never had a female president, prime minister or even foreign minister. Only about 10 percent of delegates to the party’s last national congress in 2017 were women, and that percentage doesn’t look set to increase this year.

There are many explanations. The party is a male-dominated clubby organization in which women are often shunted to lesser positions. And the absence of opposition parties, free elections or an NGO sector that could provide alternative pathways to public life are seen as undermining women’s participation.

The Impact: Women often lack champions at higher levels to reflect concerns about sexual abuse, harassment and discrimination and attempts at change.


Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.
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