The MOST Likely Questionable Truth About Peng Shuai #WhereIsPengShuai

Nov 23, 2021
Gene J. Hsu
The MOST Likely Questionable Truth About Peng Shuai #WhereIsPengShuai

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When Daryl Morey tweeted, "Fight for Freedom, stand with Hong Kong" on October 4, 2019, it caused an immediate backlash in China. All broadcasts of NBA games were swiftly canceled, and all local sponsors suspended their deals with NBA China in unison. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver walked a fine line with some carefully worded statements but ultimately acquiesced to the Chinese authorities. Nothing changed, and no notable players were willing to express any opinions against the CCP.

Context: Hong Kong is a territory with heterogeneous citizens, and American NBA players have more than enough injustice to worry about at home.


In October 2021, NBA player, Enes Kanter, began voicing his opinion about the CCP's suppression of freedom in Tibet and the hypocrisy that brands and players exhibit for doing business with China. He has been expressing his stance on his shoes, even calling out NBA superstar Lebron James over his deal with Nike because of poor working conditions in China.

Context: Kanter is a Turkish-born American professional basketball player for the Boston Celtics. He has a belief that is widely shared, but there is little consensus regarding the way forward. Although Enes' words and actions are much more direct and confrontational than Morey's, China's response has been relatively reserved. Perhaps they don't want to bring more attention to these issues before the 2022 Beijing Olympics.


On November 2, 2021, Peng Shuai, Chinese tennis player, multiple grand slams, and Olympic medal winner, posted a lengthy claim on Weibo that she was assaulted by former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli (张高丽) before starting an affair with him. Peng Shuai has since been removed from all media in China, and she has "disappeared."

Context: The difference between this case and Morey and Kanter is that Peng is a member of the global tennis community. More importantly, WTA chairman Steve Simon, Adam Silver's counterpart at the Women's Tennis Association, is taking a moral position. WTA has threatened to cancel all scheduled tours in China unless "concern about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion" is addressed.

If Simon follows through, it could force Xi Jinping to make a public example of Zhang Gaoli leading up to the 2022 Olympics or purge him depending on their Guanxi and where Zhang's loyalties lie. This "solution" is a microcosm of how China works and understanding it isn't condoning it. Instead, we should seek to enlighten ourselves to increase the likelihood of attaining a desirable outcome.


There is a "literal truth" and a "relative truth " with ALL THINGS CHINA. Literally, NO ONE precisely knows what happened except Peng Shuai and her accused, Zhang Gaoli. That said, you probably want to know what happened in "absolute terms" relative to Western values and the #METOO movement.

We all seek "answers" in terms of what we care about, but the reality of the world we live in is WE ALL CARE ABOUT SOMETHING DIFFERENT. Suppose you are prepared to accept that "China-specific" cultural (文化 wénhuà) and societal (国情 guóqíng) nuances may run counter to WHAT YOU BELIEVE. Still, it is worth hypothesizing about a likely sequence of events as an exercise in awareness (cultural, self-, and situational).


To reduce our hypocrisy, let's recall the 1994 movie Disclosure starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore. A woman, Meredith (Moore), who is in a position of power, DEMANDS sexual favors from Tom (Douglas), a male subordinate who reports directly to her. Meredith feels entitled and empowered, so she sues Tom for sexual harassment after he refuses her advances in a power play to force his departure.


As a national athlete in China, Peng Shuai entered a system at an early age that is more rigorous than any professional sport in America. Every aspect of her life was predetermined based on "what's best" for her training, which meant an "abnormal" social life, even by Chinese standards.

More than ten years ago, before her international success, Zhang Gaoli imposed a sexual relationship with Peng and renewed it again with his wife's consent seven years later. During both occurrences, Peng had less power to resist than Tom did against Meredith in Disclosure. At the same time, she also lacked the understanding of what a "healthy" sexual relationship should be, again, even by Chinese standards, due to her tightly regulated life as a Chinese national athlete. And in this context, real emotions and expectations developed despite their origins. Their relationship evolved into an "quasi-affair," but Zhang, 40 years her senior and a part of the Red Aristocracy, clearly had other intentions.

A rock star can develop genuine affection for a groupie, but it rarely leads to monogamy. The difference is that groupies are more aware of their risks and expectations, and everything is open, not secret. Peng Shuai was trapped by her emotions, the immense pressures of her position within the Chinese system, and the secrecy of her public versus private life. And she cracked! Her Weibo post was her only emotional outlet to vent (去气哭 chūqìkǒu).

In the context of China, male Chinese elites all have numerous ongoing affairs and second wives. It's normal and perhaps no different from Matt Gaetz, U.S. representative for Florida's 1st congressional district, or Donald Trump, the 45th President. Elites are elite in any culture, and accountability is rare for those in positions of authority, even in a "democracy."


  1. Chinese people need a mechanism to release their bottled-up emotions (发泄 fāxiè) more than in typical Western cultures due to the societal need to respect hierarchy and give Face under the most extreme circumstances.
  2. Chinese crisis management seeks to find a way (想办法 xiǎngbànfǎ) to appease, not satisfy. The "literal truth" will never be revealed because it could never be explained in a context that foreigners could understand.
  3. For good or bad, Chinese cultural and societal norms today still include elements of Confucian-based harmony where a respected hierarchy divides people into social classes. Today's 二奶 èrnǎi are mistresses that most Chinese elites have, and they are the modern equivalent of concubines or sex slaves. Concubinage was a formal and institutionalized practice in China until the 20th century, and today's 二奶 culture has benefits for both involved parties.

Also Read: Is #WhereIsPengShuai a Call-To-Action or Much-To-Do-About-Nothing?

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