Peng Shuai and Zhang Gaoli: why didn’t she just leave?

I was shocked to read the allegations of sexual assault against former Politburo standing committee member Zhang Gaoli by star tennis player Peng Shuai. Given that Peng had risked everything in writing them, I felt I had a responsibility to read every word with care and attention, especially given that those words were my sole source of information about the whole affair.

This is a text that will induce cognitive dissonance in many; it doesn’t just expose male violence: it is also the product of it. It needs a feminist reading to avoid widespread misunderstanding of Peng Shuai and other female victims. Through my reading of those 1,600 characters, I have tried to form an understanding of Peng and her abnormal relationship with Zhang, and link it to broader issues of structural and cultural violence. The question at the back of my mind is always: why do so many female victims find it so hard to leave?

Peng’s account, while it is filled with her personal sorrow, has plenty in common with those of other victims of sexual violence, imbued as it is with that sense of fear and panic experienced by those who are preyed on by the powerful. There is also the psychological conflict suffered by those caught up in a situation like this, which shows how women in a patriarchal society can internalize and identify with gender inequality and male violence, lose their sense of themselves in relationships, and remain bound by notions of sexual shame and chastity or caught up in myths of romantic love and marriage.

Women seem to be at particular risk in intimate relationships. They may be self-reliant and confident in the public sphere or in the workplace, and have no problem collaborating or competing with men. Peng Shuai is a particularly good example of one of these women of the new era. Educated, tenacious and spirited, she had the courage to stand up for herself as she rose to fame. At the age of 12, she elected to undergo heart surgery so she would be able to play tennis professionally. She was the first Chinese athlete to negotiate with the state system and to win the right to determine her own training and share of the rewards.

But in her personal relationship with Zhang Gaoli, she seems a totally different person. 

That’s not to say that Zhang’s rape of Peng wasn’t utterly evil. Given the huge difference in power between them, it would be totally unreasonable to expect Peng to just get up and leave after she told him no and started crying. Suffice it to say that the status of famous sports star wasn’t enough to protect her, ultimately. The blame should not rest with her, but with the system as a whole. Peng writes that she was “scared, panicked, and went along with it because of the feelings I still had for you from seven years earlier.” She entered into a three-year, secret and extramarital entanglement that left her body and mind divided from each other. 

One the one hand, she describes her relationship with Zhang as “getting along so well that everything just felt right,” while on the other, she details daily humiliation and abuse at the hands of Zhang’s resentful wife, hoping in vain that he would get a divorce and marry her instead. This is such a contrast with the feisty and ambitious Peng Shuai of the public domain.

Peng probably thought so too. She probably wanted to keep the relationship secret, not just to protect Zhang, but because she couldn’t face up to the affair herself. Despite being in huge pain and self-loathing, wishing she’d never been born, wanting to die, she kept quiet for three years. It’s a bit shocking to read about her love for Zhang, because it is clearly sincere and heartfelt. Zhang was good to her, and they had some wonderful times together, she writes. 

Former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, and tennis star Peng Shuai, who has accused a the former Chinese Communist Party high official of pressuring her into a sexual relationship, in file photos. Credit: AFP/Reuters

The Z pendant

There was one time when she wore a pendant with the letter “Z” on it to play a match, and told a journalist who asked about it that it was “meaningful” to her. Z has got to stand for Zhang, right? Looking back at photos of Peng from that time is a bit like watching a women show off her shackles. Why would the victim of sexual assault and abuse want to wear such a thing?

Reason No. 1 is Zhang’s destruction of Peng Shuai as a moral being, his deception and psychological manipulation of her. Zhang had all the resources necessary to ensure that his snaring of Peng Shuai took place outside his home, at a time and place unbeknownst to his wife, and to carry on an extramarital affair alongside his marriage. Instead, he brought Peng into his family home, leaving his wife waiting outside the bedroom door, then made them all have dinner together, an approach designed to shame and humiliate both women. He crashed through both women’s hard limits, forcing them to share his private life and centering his own desires without shame, nor any thought for their self-esteem.

Zhang told Peng: “The earth is no bigger than a grain of sand in the vastness of the universe, and we humans are even smaller than that.” Peng describes him framing this as “letting go of over-thinking,” but actually, he is requiring that she admit to being small, of no worth, with scant control over her fate, meaning that she might as well do as he says and satisfy his demands.

He also told Peng he hated her, that he would treat her well, and conflated sexual desire with genuine feeling, framing her unwillingness to have sex as a mistake. He also made empty promises he had no intention of keeping, so she could use self-deception as a way to comply with his assault.

By telling Peng Shuai that he couldn’t get a divorce, he deftly set up the illusion in her mind that the relationship might one day be formalized, while offloading the conflict onto the relationship between Peng and his wife. Ultimately, his aim was to keep Peng stuck in the shameful role of mistress. He required Peng to keep the relationship secret even from her own mother, her closest ally and supporter. That had the effect of isolating Peng from any source of support and making it even harder for her to leave.

Zhang has far more power to follow his own desires than an average person, and this use of coercive power and psychological control is quite common among highly powerful men. An ordinary man might dream of having a wife at home and a mistress elsewhere, and exploit his wife’s unpaid labor in the marriage to enjoy sexual and emotional favors from women outside it, but he is still obliged to maintain some kind of boundary between the two. He wouldn’t dare be too blatant about it.

Powerful men can afford to dispense with such scruples and act as if their wives and concubines are all in it together, wrecking these women’s sense of dignity to a far greater degree. For women, unclear boundaries and low self-esteem are the beginning of learned helplessness. 

Further control is gained by socially isolating and brainwashing their victims, who are told on the one hand that nobody will help them, and on the other that they can stay right where they are, totally undermining their willpower. 

Chinese women's tennis star Peng Shuai is shown in a file photo. Credit: Reuters
Chinese women’s tennis star Peng Shuai is shown in a file photo. Credit: Reuters


Lies are a necessary part of their strategy, while gaslighting is even more effective. Both create illusions in the minds of victims, who waver and delay doing anything, and blame themselves for their own gullibility. Women’s capacity for self-blame has always been a very important factor in this whole mechanism.

That’s why men like Zhang need to encourage women to blame themselves and make them think they are “bad girls,” so they avoid looking clearly at their situation out of shame, and appear to stay in it out of their own free will.

Meanwhile, society as a whole continues to reproduce fear and the call to surrender to violence, teaching women to accept male violence and their own subjugation in intimate relationships, and packaging the whole deal as “love.” The fear sown by the patriarchy tells women that there is no resisting male violence. All you can do is hide from it.

The vast majority of women have never been trained to resist physical or psychological violence, so they would probably fare far worse than Peng Shuai if put on the spot like that. At the same time, society tells women that male desire is inevitably accompanied by male violence, and expressed through it, turning rape into a manifestation of “love,” a love so strong that the perpetrator can no longer control themselves. This is nonsense, of course. Yet our culture is permeated with such coded hints, and people’s talk of rape is full of such distortions.

Society teaches women to conflate male desire with abuse, so that to meet it, to be “feminine,” is to assume the mentality of a victim. This leads to the belief that a love relationship that started with a rape is somehow normal, and the whole lie is further perpetuated by the taboo around female sexual autonomy. I am not saying that the tragedy Peng Shuai suffered was due to an insufficient sense of her own empowerment. I am saying that the social conditioning I have described above directly helps those who perpetrate violence.

In her social media post, Peng also describes herself as “lacking love” throughout her life. Didn’t her mother take good care of her? She had teammates, collaborators and fans, didn’t she? Yet none of them seemed to satisfy her desire to be loved. Her use of the word “love” here would appear to imply unconditional love and emotional generosity, which wouldn’t usually be found through everyday social contact.

Yet it is often lacking in a woman’s family of origin. Our society generally favors boys over girls. But even when there is no male to offer a point of comparison, the needs and feelings of women still tend to be ignored or ridden roughshod over. The trauma caused by this kind of neglect is hidden, in the unconscious of those who suffer from it, but its effects are far-reaching. It informs women’s secret doubts about their own self-worth, and their tendency to hunger for unconsciously driven “love.”

Achievements in a woman’s working life can cover up such psychological needs to a certain extent, but they offer no cure. This is why a lot of women seem to undergo a personality change when they get into an intimate relationship, because they are addicted to enmeshment, and find it hard to extricate themselves from poor-quality relationships. They constantly feel that their needs aren’t being met.

Zhang Gaoli didn’t appear to be offering Peng much in the way of material benefits, and actually, she didn’t need them. Instead, she writes that they had conversations on many different topics. But it’s hard to gauge whether Zhang was truly knowledgeable about any of it. Their tennis matches could only have been something Peng did to please him. But during the other times they spent chatting together, playing chess or singing, Peng at least felt relaxed and happy some of the time.

But that really should be no big deal in an intimate relationship. It’s entirely possible that Zhang was incapable of meeting Peng’s needs; that it was all about her responding to his needs. Yet, Peng, who has “lacked love” since childhood, feels that this time they spent together was proof enough that he was “pretty good” to her.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach has a virtual discussion with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai in Lausanne, Switzerland, November 21, 2021. Credit: Greg Martin/IOC/ Handout via Reuters
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach has a virtual discussion with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai in Lausanne, Switzerland, November 21, 2021. Credit: Greg Martin/IOC/ Handout via Reuters

Power gap

Rather than calling Peng easily satisfied, it would be more accurate to say that the emotional void created in women by this society allows men to take advantage of them, and to exploit them for their own ends.

Even a strong woman can be greatly weakened by an intimate relationship. Ultimately, it’s because of the huge weight of social injustice in our society, the power gap between high-ranking officials and ordinary people, and between men and women. Peng Shuai wasn’t just raped: she was subjected to long-term psychological violence after that rape. She was besieged, isolated and continually stripped of her sense of self-worth.

The role played by so-called “love” is this story was a poisonous one, that enabled that violence, caused her suffering, and depleted her strength. Zhang Gaoli isn’t just a guy. His immense political power means that the privilege out of which he can do violence is exponentially higher than that of other men. And yet Peng Shuai remains just a woman, mired in the weakness, obedience and resentment caused by male violence, which is packaged as that all-too-familiar notion of “femininity.” Violence brings its victims into total subjugation, both psychologically and behaviorally.

Peng Shuai’s biggest achievement is that she eventually resisted all that, despite the fact that she had “no evidence at all to back this up; only the distorted truth of my own experience.” 

Amid her own realization that her reality was distorted, she finally grasped the truth about this violent relationship, and affirmed her own being. She refused to stay down, despite having been destroyed and exploited.

And now, she seems to have fallen into a black hole, under the gaze of tens of millions of people. This is the ultimate cruelty. I want to bring her back. I want her to live the life she should have had, without its “lack of love,” without secrets, shame or self-blame. I hope her words will awaken more women to the truth that male violence is everywhere. It may be hard to resist it alone, but we can try to resist together.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

 Lü Pin is a U.S.-based Chinese feminist activist and journalist and founding editor-in-chief of Feminist Voices, a leading advocacy channel in China. 

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