China’s silencing of sexual assault victim is wake up call for CEOs

CEOs should stand on right side of history and condemn the Chinese Communist Party. #whereispengshuai #MeToo

Money and politics must not dictate what is right and wrong.  Sexual assault by men in power against vulnerable women must not be tolerated.  It is time for CEOs and investors to stand up for moral values over pandering to China.  

By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade

What if the sexual assault victim is someone you know?  How would you feel if she is your mother, aunt, wife, daughter, sister, someone in your family, friend or colleague?  Even if she is a stranger, she is still someone’s else beloved, and one of the greatest human traits is the ability to show empathy to a fellow human being’s pain and suffering.  So, it is definitely not ok to stay silent.  

Everyone in the global business community, especially CEOs and investors who are leaders of their respective industries and have decision-making power, has the responsibility and obligation to do the right thing.  Let’s be clear that there is nothing wrong in making profits but it cannot be ok to make money while sacrificing moral values and turning a blind eye to human rights abuses.

On November 2, in a late-night Weibo post, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, 35, accused Zhang Gaoli, 75, a former vice premier, of sexual assault and coercion.  Zhang once served on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s highest leadership body, alongside general secretary Xi Jinping.  Peng has vanished from the public’s view, prompting international concerns about her whereabouts and safety in a country that has always swiftly silenced all critics.

Peng’s message disappeared about 30 minutes after being posted. Since then, state censors have been busy removing Peng’s name and even the vaguest references to her allegations from the internet.  The CCP has so far refused to publicly acknowledge Peng’s allegations.  Be that as it may, the official censorship of Peng helps to reveal the depth of the sexual assault problem in China.

However, screenshots were widely shared on social media platforms outside China, as well as on private WeChat and iMessage groups in the country.  The accusation shined an international spotlight on China’s #MeToo movement and gave rise to the trending hashtag #whereispengshuai.  

Challenging the CCP’s hypocrisy

It is despicable that the CCP has disappeared the victim Peng while Zhang, the perpetrator, is not being investigated.  It is hypocritical of the CCP, in a recent similar case in August, to arrest and jail pop idol Kris Wu after influencer Du Meizhu accused him of raping her and other women, but did nothing in Peng’s case.

For too long, women in China have faced public and official backlash, pushback and censorship after coming forward with accusations of sexual assault because there is an ingrained patriarchal tradition of using positions of power to gain sexual favors from women.  As such, the CCP regime normalizes sexual violence, makes the victims feel like they are at fault, and leaves them no space to tell the truth. 

The only reason that Peng’s case can gain such prominence is the high profiles of both the victim and perpetrator.  Peng’s case is just the tip of the iceberg and there may be countless other ordinary nameless victims who suffered in silence.  Nonetheless, the silver lining is that this accusation is brought to the world stage for all to see and now, more people know about the hypocrisy and corruption of the CCP.  

International condemnation

On November 19, China faced pressure from the United Nations as the organization called for an investigation into her allegations of sexual assault. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), ATP Tour which runs the men’s tennis tournament, and some of the biggest tennis stars, including Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Novak Djokovic, have spoken out in support of Peng, demanding to know her whereabouts.  Even Gerard Pique, Barcelona football superstar, joined the social media campaign asking where Peng is.

These brave organizations and individuals, all of whom are influential in their own rights, are putting the responsibility that comes from their elevated status over kowtowing to the CCP for the sake of financial interests.  They demanded an end to censorship and called for a transparent investigation into the allegation.  

In a historic move, which undoubtedly will open the floodgate and will be remembered by the global public as standing on the right side of history, WTA CEO and Chairman Steve Simon stated on November 18 that if their demand is not met, the organization is “willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it”, effectively giving notice that he is ready to turn his back on making money in China and having access to the Chinese market.

Propaganda is making the CCP look bad

Perhaps sensing the severity of the matter and that the tide of global public opinion is turning against it, the CCP, through the state-owned broadcaster CGTN, released an email allegedly from Peng saying that she is safe and that she is denying any sexual assault by Zhang.  

China state-owned media CGTN tweeted an alleged email from Peng, which suspiciously sounded like a hostage note. (Taken from Twitter)

However, instead of putting an end to this controversy, the email has the effect of intensifying international scrutiny because it reads like a message from a hostage.  This is a legitimate reaction because the CCP has a long record of using force and intimidation to stamp out dissent.  Simon said that he had a hard time believing Peng wrote the email and added that he felt the email was a staged statement.

Chinese Human Rights Defenders issued a statement on the email stating that it should not be taken at face value because the CCP has a long history of arbitrarily detaining people involved in controversial cases, controlling their ability to speak freely, and making them give forced statements.

Hot on the heels of the email saga, CGTN journalist Shen Shiwei reposted on his Twitter account three images he claimed Peng had posted on her WeChat account with the message “happy weekend”.  However, this too is suspicious and look more like the usual propaganda that the CCP engages in.  Logically, this “evidence” is big news which can exonerate the CCP, and yet Shen posted this only on Twitter which is banned in China instead of splashing it across all news outlets and social media platforms within China.

A suspicious tweet from CGTN journalist Shen Shiwei which shows alleged photos of Peng. There was no indication of when the photos were taken. (Taken from Twitter)

It is worth standing up for universal values

CEOs and investors have a responsibility to all the stakeholders in the communities their businesses operate in.  And sexual assault is a serious violent crime that nobody should ever ignored.  From their exalted positions and the various media platforms available to them, they must commend the courage of victims who spoke up, demand an investigation and condemn the perpetrators.  Their statement of support will inspire more victims to stand up and speak up, thereby making the world a more equitable place.

Importantly, it is to the interest of the CEOs and investors to take a firm and unambiguous stance against sexual assault.  On one hand, it will improve their moral standing and authority.  On the other hand, their companies’ reputation will get a boost and as sexual assault is a universal heinous crime which does not recognize national boundaries and political ideologies, discerning global consumers and customers will appreciate and financially support the companies.

By the same logic, it is also in the interest of the CCP, if they truly believe that Zhang is innocent, to properly address Peng’s accusation and to conduct an independent and transparent investigation so as to clear Zhang’s name.  But instead, the CCP turns against Peng the victim and uses her to churn out a false narrative, while refusing to address the sexual assault accusation.  This only has the effect of making the CCP look guilty and gives the impression that it has something to hide.

The world is not fooled by the CCP’s propaganda and a significant number of courageous organizations and individuals with principles are no longer intimidated by the CCP’s intimidation and coercion.  The world is waking up and taking notice to the true nature of the CCP.

Image credit: Mai Groves /

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