Missing Chinese tennis star linked to Xi, Beijing power struggles

Revelations of a sordid sexual affair and abuse made by a leading female Chinese tennis pro against a former member of the Chinese Politburo’s standing committee are the latest sign of increased tensions among senior party leaders in Beijing, according to American specialists on China and the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

While Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai was shown in brief video clips over the weekend, her lengthy, still-unexplained disappearance and the near-total social media blackout imposed on her story show how sensitive her case is for President Xi Jinping and the country’s Communist Party leadership.

In a video call with International Olympic Committee leaders Sunday, Ms. Peng said she was fine, but asked for privacy and offered no explanation for her decision to air her story, her three-week disappearance, or the online censorship campaign that her charges sparked.

While fellow tennis stars and sports organizations rallied to her cause, even Western governments were pressing Beijing for answers.

China‘s rulers appeared determined to stifle all debate in the weeks after Ms. Peng on Nov. 2 accused Zhang Gaoli, a now-retired member of the party’s ruling Standing Committee until 2018, of forcing her to have sex with him. In posts quickly scrubbed from China‘s social media giant Weibo, Ms. Peng complained about the married Mr. Zhang‘s treatment of her in the course of an off-and-on affair that lasted several years, including at least one instance of forced sex while a Zhang aide stood guard nearby.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the United States wants solid evidence that Ms. Peng, the onetime top-ranked doubles tennis player and three-time Olympian, was safe.

Ms. Peng disappeared shortly after making the allegations on social media earlier this month. Her plight has inspired top figures in the sport to call for an explanation. Steve Simon, head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), has threatened to cancel all official tournaments in China until Ms. Peng’s case is resolved.

“We join in the calls for [Chinese] authorities to provide independent and verifiable proof of her whereabouts and that she is safe,” Ms. Psaki told reporters at the White House.

China’s communist government tried to tamp down the controversy, first with a bland email purportedly from Ms. Peng saying she was well, and then with still photos and brief videos apparently showing her dining at a Beijing restaurant with friends Saturday evening and attending the opening ceremonies for a junior tennis tournament Sunday. She is smiling and apparently healthy in both clips, but says nothing as others talk.

The IOC said in a statement that Ms. Peng in the half-hour call insisted she was well and thanked everyone for expressing concern, but added that she “would like to have her privacy respected at this time.”

However Ms. Peng’s personal story turns out, China watchers say the political fallout from the bizarre event could be far more long-lasting. Informed U.S. sources said the burgeoning scandal is not part of the feminist #MeToo movement against sexual assault in China but a reflection of power politics and score-settling under the increasingly powerful Mr. Xi.

A senior U.S. official said divisions among Chinese leaders have become more pronounced in recent months.

In China nothing is published or posted online, especially about senior CCP members, without the approval from the highest authorities. In the case of Ms. Peng, there are indications the political motives behind the charges against Mr. Zhang are based on his closeness to current Premier Li Keqiang.

Mr. Li is said to have invoked the anger of Mr. Xi by contradicting the leader’s claims about eliminating poverty in China. Some months ago after Mr. Xi declared poverty had been eliminated in the country, Mr. Li gave a speech in which he announced that 600 million of China’s 1.4 billion population are still earning the equivalent of $5 a month.

Mr. Xi, who has moved to stay in power beyond the traditional two five-year terms granted previous CCP leaders, also fears that Mr. Li in some circles in China is becoming more popular than the president.

“This may be Xi’s way of sending a warning to those critics,” said a person familiar with Chinese politics.

A feminist resurgence, by contrast is unlikely to be the motivation for the prominence the case has received.

“In China, everything is politics — one faction against another,” the person said.

Going public

The controversy erupted earlier this month when Ms. Peng posted on social media details of her affair with Mr. Zhang, a former vice premier and once one of the most powerful men in China. The posting on China’s Twitter-like Weibo social media network explained in detail how Ms. Peng had sexual relations with Mr. Zhang, who is married, in an affair that began about a decade ago when he was party secretary in Tianjin. In particular, she described a sexual assault three years ago and complained about how Mr. Zhang had treated her.

“After playing in the morning, you and your wife Kang Jie took me to your house,” she said. “Then you brought me into your room, just like when I was in Tianjin more than ten years ago, you want to have sex with me. I was very scared that afternoon. I didn’t expect it to be like this.” Seven years before that, Ms. Peng said she had “a one-time relationship” with Mr. Zhang, who never contacted her after his promotion to China‘s top governing body.

Shortly after the Nov. 2 posting, Chinese censors immediately removed the post and shut down Ms. Peng’s Weibo account.

The disappearance had sparked criticism from tennis figures including Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and former tennis pro Patrick McEnroe.

“We’re at a crossroads with our relationship, obviously, with China,” the WTA’s Mr. Simon told CNN on Thursday. “We’re definitely willing to pull our business, and deal with all the complications that come with it, because this is bigger than the business.”

Mr. Simon said Sunday that the new videos, while a positive sign, leave many questions unanswered about Ms. Peng’s treatment.

Ms. Williams tweeted on Thursday that she is “devastated and shocked” by Ms. Peng’s disappearance. “I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent,” she said.

Mr. McEnroe tweeted: “We want to know. We need to know. #WhereIsPengShuai.”

A key to the disappearance is said to be the involvement of Mr. Zhang, 75, until recently a member of the seven-member standing committee, the collective dictatorship that rules China. He held a number of senior positions, including head of party operations in Tianjin, deputy secretary of a special party group, and director of the Three Gorges Dam construction project.

He stepped down as vice premier in 2018.

The secret affairs of Chinese leaders are among the most sensitive issues for the CCP, and personal scandals are typically suppressed with intense controls inside China, analysts say.

As part of the censorship, Chinese government censors used electronic internet controls to block all discussion of both Mr. Zhang and Ms. Peng, by banning keywords and acronyms, including references to “tennis.”

Some online discussion circumvented the censors by using indirect or similar-sounding words. For example, Mr. Zhang’s first name Gaoli means “Goryeo” — a medieval Korean kingdom. Internet chats then began using “Goryeo Zhang” in discussion of the scandal.

Mr. Zhang appears to be the latest victim of the political purge launched by Mr. Xi, who also serves as the CCP’s general secretary, since taking over as the top leader in 2012. Mr. Zhang is perceived to be part of the “Shanghai faction” of leaders associated with former Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Mr. Xi belongs to the so-called “princeling faction” of Chinese party leaders, sons and relatives of the CCP’s original leaders under Mao Zedong, and has taken steps to assume near unchallenged power by purging rivals and replacing them with loyalists. A U.S. official said Mr. Xi has a near-paranoid obsession with eliminating political rivals and the disclosure of Mr. Zhang’s affair with Ms. Peng likely resulted from Mr. Xi’s efforts to further reduce his power.

Sen. Marco Rubio said the case of Ms. Peng reveals what he said was the “evil nature” of the regime.

“Peng Shuai’s disappearance is just the latest in a long list of immoral and inhumane actions committed by the Chinese Communist Party,” said Mr. Rubio, Florida Republican. “This is a regime that routinely disappears dissidents, uses slave labor to fuel its economy, and commits genocide. It is time for the world to recognize the regime for what it is and hold Xi Jinping to account.”