In the wake of champion Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai’s astonishing social media post in November, news outlets around the world reported it as a clear-cut allegation of “sexual assault”.
The essay was posted publicly but deleted within minutes and Beijing quickly moved to suppress any mention or discussion of the matter.
Ms Peng then temporarily disappeared from public view, triggering international concern and condemnation.
But last month, Ms Peng spoke to Singaporean Chinese-language news outlet Lianhe Zaobao and denied ever claiming she had been “sexually assaulted”, saying her post had been misunderstood.
So was she simply recanting her accusation?
According to experts in translation and Chinese studies spoken to by the ABC, Ms Peng’s original post was more ambiguous than has been widely reported.
However, some argue the behaviour she described still amounted to alleged sexual assault, even if she didn’t explicitly use those words.
What did her post actually say?
In the long, anguished post published on Chinese social media platform Weibo on November 2, Ms Peng revealed she had been in a secret relationship with a powerful official, Zhang Gaoli.
It began, she said, when he took her to his house three years ago to “force” or “coerce” her to have sex with him.
A number of outlets reported that Ms Peng — who become the first Chinese tennis player to achieve a top ranking when she became the world number 1 in doubles in 2014 — had alleged Mr Zhang sexually assaulted her that afternoon.
Ms Peng does describe being led to a room in Mr Zhang’s house, with someone guarding outside, where she refused to have sex and was crying.
However, Delia Lin, an associate professor of Chinese studies at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute, said her reading of the text was Ms Peng and Mr Zhang didn’t have sex until later on, after they had dinner, and only once she “agreed” to.
“[In the evening], I had dinner with you and Antie Jie Kang together.
“After dinner, I still didn’t want to do it, and you said you hated me!
“And you told me you had never forgotten me over past seven years, that you would treat me well and so on …
“Scared and panicked, and with the feelings I had for you seven years ago, I agreed [to have sex]…
“Yes, we indeed had sex.”
Read an English translation of the full text of Peng Shuai’s social media post.
Dr Lin said she could understand how people could have had a different interpretation.
Before the topic was censored, even Chinese social media users misinterpreted or simplified the story, she said.
“This kind of story is too familiar to many, that people in power would use their power for coercing, but in this particular case, the sequence of actions is much more complex than what we usually hear,” she said.
“So a lot of people didn’t read it carefully.”
Most Western media reports focused on Ms Peng saying Mr Zhang took her to his house to “force her to have sex”, or to “press her to have a sexual relationship”.
It included the word “逼” which is usually translated as “force”, “pressure” or “coerce”.
Dr Lin said “逼” had shades of meaning that could be more or less severe but it was usually used to indicate someone was forcing someone to do something.
“It is quite strong word,” she said.
“So I think the use of that word would, especially with the Chinese social media audience who read the original post in Chinese would make people feel that she did all that under duress, and she didn’t want this to happen.”
“[They had sex], but later on, and then she developed this genuine love for him.”
However, Dr Lin said Ms Peng’s claim her post had been misunderstood should also be treated with caution.
Dr Lin said no-one knew what was motivating Ms Peng when she denied alleging she was sexually assaulted, absolving Mr Zhang of any criminal wrongdoing.
“Considering Zhang Gaoli’s position, it’s difficult to conceive that Ms Peng would not be receiving instructions from the CCP [Chinese Communist Party],” she said.
Context and complexity
Ms Peng published the post days after she said she and Mr Zhang had an argument and he began ignoring her again, like he did after their first brief affair.
Miranda Lai, a senior lecturer in translating and interpreting at RMIT, said it was impossible to know for certain what Ms Peng really meant without clarifying with her, but the post was clearly about much more than how the secret affair began.
“It provides context of their ‘romantic relationship’, stretching from many years before the incident of alleged sexual assault to years after.”
Most news pieces missed the context of the relationship over many years and Ms Peng’s complex feelings, she said.
“As a result, the reporting in most Western media reads like a pure sexual assault case for one incident at one point in time, whereas it is more complex than that,” she said.
Was it another #MeToo moment?
Ms Peng’s post was published amid China’s version of the #MeToo movement, which has resulted in a number of high-profile allegations of sexual harassment, with hers the first controversy involving a top government official.
Pan Wang, a senior lecturer in Chinese and Asian studies at UNSW, said Ms Peng may have been influenced and empowered by the #MeToo movement to share her private affair with the public.
However, Dr Wang said Ms Peng’s case had key differences to some of the others.
“It’s about extramarital affairs, adultery, we do see elements of sexual harassment here, but intertwined with love.
“So this is how complicated the thing is.”
Concerns for Ms Peng’s welfare
Over the past several months, human rights organisations and governments have continued to express concerns for Ms Peng’s wellbeing, dismissing her apparent attempts to assure the global community of her safety as being orchestrated by the Chinese government.
After calling for a “full and transparent investigation – without censorship – into Peng Shuai’s sexual assault accusation” the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) last month suspended all tournaments in China and Hong Kong.
The WTA did not respond to the ABC’s request for comment for this article.
Some have even suggested the controversy may have contributed to the US, UK and Australia deciding not to send any officials to the Beijing Winter Games in February.
A statement provided to the ABC by the International Olympic Committee said:
“As the IOC has already stated: It will stay in touch with Peng Shuai and will meet with her in January. At the same time, we will continue our quiet diplomacy approach with the Chinese sports organisations. In these talks, all issues are being addressed.”
Beijing has largely refrained from commenting on the matter.
In November, foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a press briefing it was “not a diplomatic matter” and pointed out that Ms Peng had attended public activities and spoken with Mr Bach.
“I hope certain people will cease malicious hyping, let alone politicisation,” he said.
Dr Wang, from UNSW, said it was natural that Western organisations such as the WTA interpreted Ms Peng’s post as a sexual misconduct complaint and were suspicious of Beijing’s response, given the lack of detailed information, communication or transparency, and the censorship of the issue.
However, she said there did not appear to be any clear accusation of rape, a criminal offence in China, and “sexual harassment” fell under the civil code.
Whether or not the former vice-premier’s persuasion or coercion as described by Ms Peng could be characterised as “sexual assault” in common terms was subjective, she said.
She added that while Beijing wanted to suppress any controversy regarding its officials, Western media had their own political agenda on China as well.
“This [case] involves talks around harassment, power, scepticism and it has happened in this broader context of growing tensions between China, and for example, Australia, flowing from diplomatic strain, trade frictions and growing accusations against China’s human rights issues, democracy and censorship,” she said.
“So there’s a media war here as well between China and the West and Australian media, and that’s also reflected in the contrasting views of the social media post.”
The issue of consent
The Chinese system is notoriously opaque and arbitrary, leading to suspicions that Mr Zhang is being politically protected.
But would a social media post be grounds for a criminal investigation even in Australia?
Melbourne University Law School professor Heather Douglas said in Australia the police would normally require a report or complaint from the alleged victim before investigating, as long as they were an adult.
“The victim/survivors testimony is often the key evidence so without that it can be difficult/impossible to proceed,” she said.
“Notably some women choose not to engage with the criminal justice process, or if they do report don’t want the incident to be investigated further or decide they don’t want to continue with the criminal process.”
Professor Douglas said that if the case were to be prosecuted, it would be up to a jury to determine whether Ms Peng provided proper “consent”.
She said the definition of “consent” varied across the country but in most jurisdictions it had to be “free” or “free and voluntary”.
“If there is evidence that the person ‘submitted’ because of fear/threat of force or harm to themselves or someone else … this would not be free or voluntary consent,” she said.
Generally the idea of “free” or “free and voluntary” was as commonly understood in ordinary language, she said.
“None of these ideas are clearly defined and the question of how to understand or interpret whether there has been free/voluntary consent in the particular matter is a matter left to jurors where it is challenged,” she said.
“In Australia, a juror hearing that the victim was crying and scared prior to the sex might think that supports her claim that the sex was non-consensual.
“The assessment of whether there was consent is about the jury considering what was going on in the mind of the victim — did [she or he] freely and voluntarily consent?”
Rachael Burgin, the executive director of Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy, said NSW had the strongest laws around consent in Australia following recent reforms.
Dr Burgin, who is also a law lecturer at Swinburne University, pointed out that in NSW law consent was not considered “free” if it was given as the result of “intimidation, intimidatory or coercive conduct or other threat that does not involve a threat of force, or the abuse of a position of authority or trust”.
“So there’s an increasing recognition of the role of authority and coercion in sexual assault laws but also in laws around coercive control and how that links with sexual offences,” she said.
“More widely, there’s generally a shift towards recognising coercion in broader circumstances in jurisdictions across Australia.”
Dr Burgin said it was a “tricky issue” because it was so layered but whether or not Ms Peng intended her post to reveal a specific incident or the abuse she suffered over many years, it was still a sexual assault allegation.
“Because that was part of that relationship,” she said.
“It seems to me she’s calling out not just that one incident, but the whole context of that relationship,” she said.
‘Unequivocally clear’ post was sexual assault claim
For organisations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) there is no ambiguity in the matter.
HRW senior China researcher Yaqiu Wang told the ABC it was “unequivocally clear” that Ms Peng’s post amounted to a sexual assault allegation.
“She didn’t use the words ‘sexual assault’, [but] that doesn’t mean she’s not been sexually assaulted,” she said.
Ms Wang said Ms Peng made it clear that she did not want to have sex with Mr Zhao.
There was a “huge” power imbalance between the two, she said.
While she eventually agreed and Mr Zhao didn’t explicitly threaten her, Ms Wang said there was an implicit threat if she continued to refuse, and her consent could not be considered given freely.
“I think it still has to be understood in the context of the power dynamics and the political context,” she said.
Additional reporting by Kai Feng.