The Peng Shuai affair: the West’s reaction should be laughed out of court

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. (Image: Flickr/robbiesaurus)

The use by China critics of a tennis player’s broken relationship with a senior party official to paint the regime in Beijing as evil is absurd.

China bashing has just got a lot easier. Now you do not have to go all the way to Xinjiang or Tibet to find atrocity stories. All you need do is invent stories about high officials in Beijing sexually assaulting their tennis partners.

Over the years Beijing has been accused of everything from inventing water torture to organising the Vietnam War. (Meanwhile real atrocities such as the 1966-71 Cultural Revolution are largely ignored – too difficult to understand.) But there has been little to compare with the distortions needed to create the Peng Shuai affair, making it look as if the Chinese tennis champion had denounced a senior party official for assaulting her sexually – a denunciation she was then supposedly forced to retract.

Peng is a tennis player who, in her own words on the widely used Chinese messaging app Weibo, began an affair 10 years ago with a tennis-playing senior party official, Zhang Kaoli. He abruptly halted the affair after three years when he was promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee.

Four years later, Zhang invites Peng to his house to have dinner with his wife. He takes her aside and says he wants to resume the relationship. She says she is confused, and not just because of the presence of his wife (who, it turns out, has no objection). Peng is still angry about the way he treated her four years earlier. But eventually that evening she gives in. In her own words, addressed to Zhang and taken from the translated Weibo post: “Taking into consideration the affection I had for you seven years ago, I agreed… yes, we had sex. Romantic attraction is such a complicated thing to explain it clearly. From that day on, I renewed my love for you.”

Again, in her own words: “Throughout my time with you after that, purely based on our interactions, you were a very good person, and you treated me well… We talked about things from modern history to ancient times. You talked to me about the knowledge of all things, from economics to philosophy, an endless number of topics. Together, we played chess, sang songs, played table tennis and billiards. And when we played tennis, we could always play to the point of bliss. Our personalities were so harmonious that it seemed as if everything fit together perfectly.”

Does any of this sound like gross sexual intimidation? And how could it possibly be faked, as the critics claim?

Recently, however, the relationship began to go south. Some time in December, after a fierce argument, Zhang, now vice-premier, cut off all contact. She then decided to post her Weibo message, which the messaging app soon deleted.

Somehow, all this is supposed to prove the Chinese regime is evil. But Peng herself admits to having had a genuinely friendly, consensual relationship with the politician 40 years older than herself. As for Weibo deleting the post, do Western messaging apps allow these kinds of messages to remain on display?

But that does not stop the agitation in the West’s anti-China media. The New York Times ran a condemnatory half-page article plus an editorial pointing out the inherent evil of all communist regimes. According to a writer in Britain’s The Spectator magazine: “The chances are that Peng Shuai has been put under house arrest since her explosive statement, with every means of independent communication taken away from her.”

Even The Sydney Morning Herald with its daily diet of domestic scandals was shocked. And the Women’s Tennis Association announced it was suspending all of its tournaments in China.

Peng, we were told, “has been seen only sporadically in public since she levelled an accusation of sexual assault against a senior party official”. Sexual assault? Peng has written that she wants some quiet time to get her life back in place. But that is supposed to be a deliberate move by the regime to silence her. When she came out to sign tennis balls, this too was a regime plot.

Have the anti-China media finally gone bananas? Did they actually read the Weibo story? It is a moving description of a woman’s feelings after a much older man has broken their long-standing relationship – a deep cry for public understanding and sympathy after having been, in her own translated words, dumped.

By all means accuse Zhang over the crude and rude way he twice broke the 10-year affair. But that hardly adds up to something more evil than what often occurs in the corridors of power in Australia or the US, where politicians use their positions to take advantage of female staff.

The laboured efforts to convince us that Peng has since been silenced are equally unconvincing. Caught at an airport by a Singapore TV news outlet, she showed genuine surprise and annoyance about the fuss being made over her Weibo remarks and asked to be left in peace. But even this impromptu appearance, and her obviously genuine remarks (in Chinese), were forced or faked, the critics insist.

There has to be a limit to which people are allowed to distort for political purposes a woman’s deep and poetically described grief over the way a much older man twice won and then discarded her affections. The Peng Shuai affair goes well beyond that limit.