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Peng Shuai, A Reckoning China's Communist Party Can't Afford To Face

The mysterious disappearance – and brief reappearance – of the Chinese tennis star after her #metoo accusation against a party leader shows Beijing is prepared to do whatever is necessary to quash any challenge from its absolute rule.

Peng Shuai, A Reckoning China's Communist Party Can't Afford To Face

Fears are growing about the safety and whereabouts of Peng Shuai

Yan Bennett and John Garrick

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai's apparent disappearance may have ended with a smattering of public events, which were carefully curated by state-run media and circulated in online clips. But many questions remain about the three weeks in which she was missing, and concerns linger over her well-being.

Peng, a former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion, had been out of the public eye since Nov. 2. 2021 when she penned a since-deleted social media post accusing former Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual misconduct.

In the U.S. and Europe, such moments of courage from high-profile women have built momentum to out perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault and give a voice to those wronged. But in the political context of today's People's Republic of China (PRC) – a country that tightly controls political narratives within and outside its borders – something else happened. Peng was seemingly silenced; her #MeToo allegation was censored almost as soon as it was made.

As scholars ofChinese legal culture who have watched as the nation has become increasingly repressive under the leadership of Xi Jinping, we believe the mysterious disappearance – and brief reappearance – of Peng should be viewed within a broader socio-legal context. The episode shows that when presented with a potential pivotal #MeToo moment, Beijing is prepared to violate its own legal principles and respond with a state-media controlled operation aimed to chill any challenge to CCP authority.

Claim of a sexual assault

Peng's Nov. 2 post on Weibo, the popular Chinese social media platform, reads like an open letter to Zhang, a retired but still powerful member of China's Communist Party elite.

In it, the tennis star alleges coercion, duress and sexual assault. Peng wrote to the 75-year-old Zhang: "Why did you have to come back to me, took me to your home to force me to have sex with you? … I couldn't describe how disgusted I was, and how many times I asked myself am I still a human? I feel like a walking corpse."

It is dangerous to publicly criticize even a former senior Chinese Communist Party official

The post was quickly taken down and Peng disappeared. But it sparked widespread international outrage. Current and former athletes expressed concern over Peng's safety, including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams. The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai started trending.

Chinese state media responded by publishing a message purportedly from Peng, stating that "everything is fine." But it was met with deep skepticism across the international community. Even with her reemergence at public events, concerns over her safety remain.

Behind the saga, however, is a clear message: It is dangerous to publicly criticize even a former senior Chinese Communist Party official. The party does not want any American-style #MeToo movement in China, as it is hostile to any grassroots movements that challenge its authority.

Two people hold placards for the Chinese tenniswoman Peng Shuai, Toulouse, France

Alain Pitton/NurPhoto/ZUMA

Being "disappeared"

Peng's disappearance also shows how authoritarian instruments of control are triggered by politically sensitive matters that contradict Communist Party narratives.

Such control of any sensitive narrative in China is commonplace with the CCP. Just ask Jack Ma, the former head of Alibaba, or movie star Fan Bingbing. Ma, who was the richest man in China and a worldwide celebrity, criticized the Chinese financial industry. This criticism led to his quick disappearance from public view. Thereafter, his ANT Group IPO was quashed and assets disassembled and appropriated by government-controlled entities. Fan also disappeared from public view and eventually resurfaced, only to be fined for tax evasion. It appeared that the Communist Party considered her conduct may have had a corrupting influence on socialist values with displays of wealth and glamour out of sync with Xi's revival of Maoist concepts such as "common prosperity."

In Peng's case, her story directly contradicted the Communist Party's official narrative of harmonious relations between people and Party. In particular, her allegations contradict the narrative that women, who purportedly "hold up half the sky in China", enjoy gender equality under this government.

Rule of law has become a ruthless, blunt force instrument wielded by party leadership

Peng, for challenging this view, was given a taste of being canceled from China's history and stripped of her rights under the Chinese constitution to seek justice in relation to her serious allegations. Indeed, the Chinese government has a history of unjustly detaining people involved in contentious cases, limiting their capacity to talk freely, and forcing statements.

Under Xi, China enjoys a self-described "socialist democracy with 'Chinese characteristics'," in which "the citizens' basic rights are respected and guaranteed."

But the response to Peng, amongst others, shows that rule of law has become a ruthless, blunt force instrument wielded by party leadership.

As Cai Xia, former professor at the Central Party School of the CCP, argued in June 2021: "the regime has degenerated further into a political oligarchy bent on holding on to power through brutality and ruthlessness [and] has grown ever more repressive and dictatorial."

Cai continued: "A personality cult now surrounds Xi, who has tightened the Party's grip on ideology and eliminated what little space there was for political speech and civil society."

In Peng's case, her "being disappeared" appears to be an attempt to kill several birds with one arrow: crush dissent, stem any Chinese #MeToo momentum and instill fear about criticizing CCP officials because, as the vanguard of the Communist Party under Xi Jinping Thought, they must always be seen as virtuous. In short, "Xi Jinping Thought" is a set of policies and ideas taken from the various writings and speeches of General Secretary Xi.

Fight to the end

Peng's allegations came at a particularly sensitive time for the CCP. It came just as Xi was preparing to deliver a historical resolution aimed at further cementing his grip on power.

"The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has entered a key phase, and risks and challenges we face are conspicuously increasing," Xi remarked, while vowing to "fight to the end" with any forces that attempt to subvert the party's leadership.

"Any forces" apparently includes anyone who criticizes or challenges the Communist Party – even one of its own international sports stars making serious allegations against a former party official.

Yan Bennett, Assistant Director for the Paul and Marcia Wythes Center on Contemporary China, Princeton University and John Garrick, University Fellow in Law, Charles Darwin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Photo of demonstrators in the UK against conversion therapy

The UK Government has finally announced a draft bill to ban conversion therapy for all – including trans people.

Openly via Twitter
Riley Sparks, Ginevra Falciani, Renate Mattar

Welcome to Worldcrunch’s LGBTQ+ International. We bring you up-to-speed each week on a topic you may follow closely at home, but can now see from different places and perspectives around the world. Discover the latest news on everything LGBTQ+ — from all corners of the planet. All in one smooth scroll!

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TW: This content may address topics and include references to violence that some may find distressing.

🌐 5 things to know right now

• Violence against trans people triples in Scotland: A recent Scottish government study has revealed that hate crimes aimed at transgender people have tripled in the country. The Scottish Tories rejected suggestions that the UK government had contributed to the rise in hate crime, after it clashed with Scotland by blocking a new law that would make it simpler for people to change their legal gender. Meanwhile, Scotland’s leader Nicola Sturgeon said on Tuesday that she would take the British government to court over its decision to veto.

• Mexican trans activist beaten to death: Denisse Cabaly, a 29-year-old trans woman was viciously beaten to death by two men in the market area of Veracruz, Mexico. Cabaly, a sex worker and trans rights activist, was also known for her community work as part of the Martinez de la Torre, in a social organization where she was very much loved. The Attorney General's Office of the State of Veracruz did not issue any statement about this trans feminicide or others that have occurred in the region.

• Indiana introduces number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills: Legislators in Indiana introduced a series of bills destined to eliminate gender fluidity, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation discussions in schools. The ACLU of Indiana has labeled the bills in question a "slate of hate."

• EU slams Lithuania for censoring LGBTQ+ children’s book: The European Court of Human Rights has condemned Lithuania for violating freedom of expression after the country attempted to remove a children’s book tackling LGBTQ+ issues from the shelves. The book, featuring LGBTQ+ characters, was labeled "harmful to children."

• Beyoncé under fire for Dubai show: Beyoncé’s first live performance in five years, for the opening of Dubai’s luxury hotel Atlantis has sparked major controversy. While many fans were exhilarated by her return, others were displeased given Dubai’s strict laws against same-sex relationships. Her newest album, Renaissance, is inspired by LGBT icons and honors black queer culture and was therefore poorly received by some, in light of the country’s strong conservatism.

Where Conversion Therapy Is Banned, And Where Its Practices Are Ever More Extreme

Conversion therapy, which includes a range of practices that aim to change someone’s sexuality or gender identity, has long been controversial. Many in the LGBTQ community consider it outright evil.

As the practice has spread, often pushed on young people by homophobic family members, there has been a worldwide push to make conversion therapy illegal, with the UK as the latest country set to ban such practices as electric shocks, aversion therapy and a variety of other traumatic, dangerous techniques to try to change someone's sexual preferences or gender identity.

The British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy, the professional body which governs therapists in the UK, calls the practice “unethical (and) potentially harmful.”

In France, journalists have documentedmany healthcare professionals offering the pseudoscientific practice. In one case, a self-described “LGBT-friendly” therapist offered to “cure” a young lesbian through so-called "rebirth therapy," a dangerous practice that was banned in some U.S. states after unlicensed therapists killed a 10-year-old girl during a session.

For one Canadian man, therapy included prescription medication and weekly ketamine injections to “correct the error” of his homosexuality, all under the guidance of a licensed psychiatrist. Some people are forced into treatment against their will — often minors — but most of the time, those who receive conversion therapy do so willingly.

The UK announcement of plans to ban conversion therapy for England and Wales comes after four separate British prime ministers had promised, for almost five years, to ban the practice.

When the British government first considered legislation to ban conversion therapy back in 2018, it was expected to include gender identity as well as sexuality. But the government backed down in the face of conservative opposition, watering down the bill to cover only efforts to change sexuality. This week, however, gender identity was reinstated.

If the UK moves ahead with the legislation, it would join more than a dozen other countries and jurisdictions in the world that have enacted some sort of restriction. Here is a quick overview look at where governments have, and have not, moved to ban conversion therapy.

What were the first countries to ban conversion therapy?

Brazil was the first country to pass a nationwide ban on conversion therapy related to sexual orientation — in 1999, almost a decade before any other country. The ban was expanded in 2018 to also include gender identity.

In the following years, Samoa (2007), Fiji (2010), Argentina (2010), Uruguay (2017) and Taiwan (2018) passed laws to ban healthcare professionals from practicing conversion therapy on the basis of sexual orientation, and, in the last three cases, also gender identity.

In Ecuador, conversion therapy was banned in 2014 after media reports prompted more than 100,000 people to sign a petition demanding the government shut down clinics that used brutal techniques including torture, sexual violence and imprisonment. A 2018 Reuters investigation found numerous clinics still operating.

Spreading in Europe

In 2016, Malta became the first European country to introduce legislation criminalizing conversion therapy. The island nation, often ranked as one of Europe's most LGBTQ-friendly countries, announced in Jan. 2023 that the law would be expanded to make it illegal to advertise or promote the practice.

The Maltese legislation came two years before the European Parliament voted to ask member states to ban the practice.

Conversion therapy for minors has been banned since 2020 in Germany, where advocates estimated that prior to the ban, about 1,000 people were subjected to conversion therapy every year.

Previously, some licensed German doctors provided therapy aimed at changing a patient’s sexuality and gender identity. One doctor told a German journalist with Die Zeit newspaper who went undercover in 2014 to document healthcare professionals offering the practice, that he “became” gay because of a scar on his chin. The doctor billed €92.50 for the session; another doctor rubbed oil on the journalist’s forehead and offered a prayer to “exorcise the spirit of homosexuality.”

German law now also makes it illegal for parents to force their children into therapy — but it remains legal for people over the age of 18, a decision criticized by opposition parties when the legislation was introduced. At the time, the German government said that a ban covering adults might not pass a legal challenge, and that their priority was to ensure young people weren’t subjected to conversion therapy.

Albania’s professional order for psychologists banned its members from offering conversion therapy in 2021, effectively making the practice illegal nationwide.

The following year, the French parliament voted unanimously to ban conversion therapy for sexuality and gender identity.

Skirting bans with online therapies 

After years of dragging its feet on the bill — which the government had previously introduced but failed to move through parliament despite broad support — Canada banned conversion therapy targeting sexual orientation and gender identity in Dec. 2021.

The law also bans taking minors outside of the country for conversion therapy. No one has been charged since the legislation came into effect.

The law can also only control what happens within the country’s borders: with psychologists and therapists increasingly offering services online since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, conversion therapy practitioners based in the U.S., where it remains legal in many states, have targeted Canadians.

A recent investigation by Canadian broadcaster CBC found American "life coaches" freely offering conversion therapy to Canadians online, despite the ban.

In New Zealand, a ban passed in 2022, with opposition from just eight members of parliament. Like Germany, New Zealand’s law only concerns minors.

In Spain, Australia and Switzerland, several provinces and states have their own bans, and the Spanish government proposed legislation in 2021 that would implement a ban nationwide.

The practice is still legal in Italy, where recent research suggests as many as one in 10 young LGBTQ+ people have experienced it. The current Irish government has pledged that this year it will propose a bill to ban conversion therapy on the basis of sexuality and gender identity, after a 2018 bill failed to make it out of the legislature before an election.

Mixed messages in the U.S.

Twenty five states in the U.S., as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have also banned conversion therapy — in many cases only for minors. However, it remains legal in the other 25 states, and efforts to ban the practice in many have attracted intense conservative opposition, as the debate now includes the movement by conservatives to instead ban gender transition services

Lawmakers in nearly a dozen U.S. states have introduced a wave of anti-trans legislation since 2020, including bills in Oklahoma, South Carolina, Kansas and Mississippi that criminalize providing transition-related healthcare, even for adults.

In Texas, where lawmakers have proposed some of the most extreme legislation, conversion therapy remains legal — and in 2022 the governor ordered the state’s child protection agency to investigate parents whose children had received transition-related healthcare.

Exorcisms and "corrective" rape in Asia

In many countries around the world, conversion therapy remains not only legal, but increasingly popular.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, these “therapies” are openly sponsored by governmental agencies as the official response to sexual and gender diversity issues and can include exorcisms and “corrective” rape. The Malaysian government even produced an app in 2016 that promised to help the LGBTQ+ community “return to nature.” It was removed from the Google Play store only last year, as it was breaching the platform’s guidelines.

In other countries, like the Philippines or South Korea, presidents and government officials have repeatedly referred to homosexuality as something that can be cured.

In China, patients are subjected to electric shocks or cold showers and are given a cocktail of medication that includes antidepressants and nausea-inducing pills they have to take when watching gay pornographic movies. Some hospitals offer blood tests, DNA analyses and brain scans as well. If the results are normal, and they usually are, the doctor tells the patient that they can be cured because their "problem" is not genetic.

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