A sexual harassment accusation against a former member of China's ruling elite was posted on social media on November 2. The next day, the post had vanished, but Western news organizations widely covered the subject.

The New York Times, The Guardian, and the BBC published reports of Tennis star Peng Shuai's claim to have been pressured into non-consensual sex with former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli. The reports noted that this was the first time a #MeToo accusation had been leveled at such a prominent member of the ruling elite in China.

The reports said that Peng, 35, had claimed to have had an on-again, off-again consensual relationship with Zhang, 75, for several years.

The New York Times said that the claim had appeared on a verified account at the popular social media site Weibo. The Guardian, for its part, said it had not been able to confirm the authenticity of the post. By all accounts, the post had disappeared from China's social media by November 3.

The New York Times reported that China's internet censorship had blocked searches for Peng's name and even the word "tennis." Radio Free Asia (RFA), a broadcaster financed by the U.S.-government, reported that searching on Weibo for Peng's name on November 3 had not produced only material posted on September 10 or earlier.

RFA noted that purported screenshots of the athlete's post had been widely distributed in China and abroad.

'I never consented that afternoon'

The Guardian's account of the accusation contained an English translation of a quote from her post where she had described a sexual encounter with Zhang three years ago. She was quoted saying, "I never consented that afternoon, crying all the time."

RFA's account of Peng's post indicated that the two had maintained an on-again, off-again relationship for years.

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The athlete had consented to be the politician's secret mistress. At one point in the post, the athlete said, "I freely admit that I'm not one of the good girls," according to the translation published by RFA.

Zhang had been vice premier of China from 2013 to 2018 and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee from 2012 to 2017, RFA said.

The BBC noted that he had been a reliable supporter of President Xi Jinping. Peng had been ranked as the world's No.1 doubles player in 2014 after her victories at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014, RFA recalled

Journalist Liu Chengkun told RFA that Peng's accusations were something Chinese people would never discuss "even in private because it involves a member of the Politburo standing committee." He added that "an atmosphere of red terror" now reigned in China now, and the athlete would "very likely to be subject to retaliation via the criminal justice system for smearing the name of a national leader."

No evidence for accusations

It was impossible to corroborate Peng's accusations, the New York Times said.

"There is no audio record, no video record, only my distorted but very real experience," the tennis star acknowledged in her post, according to a translation published by the BBC.

Before joining the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, Zhang had been governor of Shandong province and Communist Party Secretary in the port city of Tianjin, the New York Times noted. The paper quoted a translated passage of Peng's in which she had acknowledged Zhang's powerful position, only to add defiantly "even if it's just me, like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I'll tell the truth about you."

More #MeToo cases in China

Western news outlets have recalled other #MeToo cases involving famous Chinese personalities.

The BBC recalled that former television intern Zhou Xiaoxuan had published accusations against her male colleague Zhu Jun in 2018. She had taken him to court, only to see the case thrown out in September, the BBC said.

RFA recalled that in 2018 former graduate student Luo Xixi had gone on social media to accuse Beihang University Professor Chen Xiaowu of sexual harassment in.

RFA said the accusation had resulted in the university firing the professor. Some Chinese people have found imaginative ways to circumvent censorship when talking about these cases, according to Kerry Allen, media analyst for the BBC.

Allen noted that the pair of Mandarin words "rice" and "rabbit" had been used to refer to #MeToo because, when spoken out loud, the words sound like English "me, too."

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"The censorship is not working," activist Pin Lü told the New York Times.

She told the paper that #MeToo had become more forceful in China. The paper quoted her saying that when Chinese women had begun talking about sexual harassment three years ago, "no one could have imagined that it would reach this high level."