Pity the dictators. It’s harder and harder for them to rule by terror, to make people believe in their legitimacy, and to impose a single ideology. Despite all the new technologies at their disposal—Internet espionage, censorship of social networks, and facial-recognition software—the people no longer believe. Where it is too dangerous to protest, the people resort to irony: even in the Soviet Union, popular humor was the most common way to mock despots and their pretensions. Whatever the obstacles, truth breaks through—be it the Iron Curtain yesterday or the Great Firewall today. I submit as proof the fact that #MeToo has arrived in Xi Jinping’s China, which was supposed to be sealed hermetically against Western influences.
The major affair mobilizing Chinese public opinion these days, by parallel networks and word of mouth bypassing the official media, is not Xi’s declaring himself his own successor, but Peng Shuai’s denunciation of Zhang Gaoli for raping her. Who are Peng Shuai and Zhang Gaoli? Peng is a global tennis star—China’s best player and a popular idol. Zhang is a former member of the politburo of the Communist Party, the highest council of the state, as well as former vice prime minister. Peng has accused Zhang of repeated rapes, with the complicity of his own wife, who locked the door for him. Such crimes were common in the old China, as well as among the Chinese Communist elites: Xi himself got rid of many Communist potentates for “corruption and debauchery.” No one was more “debauched” than Mao Zedong: he deflowered young virgins at a frenetic pace and spent his days in bed, as was widely known.
What is radically new in the Peng Shuai affair is that this is the first time a victim has spoken out and openly accused one of the most powerful men in China. What is more, she is exhorting all victims to denounce those who rape and harass: #MeToo, in effect, has arrived in China, despite many Communist Party efforts to prevent contamination by Western ideas. Recall that, when #MeToo appeared in the United States following the alleged escapades of Harvey Weinstein and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the official Chinese press reported that such debauchery could only happen in capitalist countries, while China remained pure, with its women equal to men. But this claim was never any more credible in China than elsewhere; the sexual habits of Mao and his successors are well-known to the Chinese. It is also apparent that no woman holds a significant political office in China. But no one expected what Peng has dared to do. She was no doubt influenced by #MeToo (as was all of patriarchal Asia, especially South Korea and Japan) and considered herself relatively protected by her status as a national icon.
Truly the life of a dictator knows no rest. Probably Peng will be spared (though she has not been seen in public for some time now), and Zhang will finish his life in a jail or some labor camp; Xi likely has no choice. But this affair, which will no doubt set a precedent, will not be helpful to Chinese efforts to pass for an exemplary society. The image of Communist China—its soft power, as is said—was already at its lowest ebb: in just two years, we have seen the global disaster of Covid-19, which started in Wuhan; the conquest of Hong Kong; threats against Taiwan; power-grabs in the Pacific; the incarceration and extermination of Uighurs; rising domestic censorship; a president declaring himself dictator for life; armed aggressions against India; steady support for North Korean totalitarianism—and I could go on. After nine years of absolute power, Xi has destroyed the “Chinese model.” Whereas Maoism was an ideological export (however reprehensible), the new China has nothing to export but material goods.
The twenty-first century will not be Chinese. What a pity for China and its people—for this was once a great civilization, whose destruction began with the military conquest of the state by Mao and whose last remnants are being crushed by power-hungry males. How fitting that the rebellion should begin with a woman.
Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images