Circumventing censorship in the PRC

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A major scandal erupted this past week in the highest levels of the CCP political structure, when a female tennis star, Peng Shuai 彭帅, accused a top official, Zhang Gaoli 张高丽, of having an affair with her.  Zhang is now retired, but was a recent member of  the Politburo Standing Committee and former holder of many high, important positions.  He was Premier Li Keqiang's former right hand man (Vice Premier).

"Chinese tennis star’s sexual assault allegation against former top leader prompts online blackout", by Eva Dou and Alicia Chen, Washington Post (11/3/21)

In what is seen as a reassertion of the feminist #MeToo movement in China, after the government had tamped it down for several years, Peng launched her accusation of sexual assault and prolonged liaison on her Twitter-like Weibo account.  Government authorities quickly scrubbed her post from the web, but not before screen shots had been made of it and a massive flurry of netizen discussion ensued.

Naturally (for the PRC), the government also strove to prevent all discussion of the scandal by censoring any mention of Zhang Gaoli and Peng Shuai, including banning all the keywords / acronyms related to them, and even references to "tennis".  Just as naturally, netizens relied on their own cleverness to circumvent the censorship.  For example, Zhang's given name means Goryeo, a late medieval Korean kingdom [918-1392]),  Leave it to the netizens to start referring to him as “Goryeo Zhang,”

Internet censorship in China is one big cat and mouse game.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Miffy Zhang]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    November 7, 2021 @ 9:05 am

    Why would one accuse a top official of having an affair with one ? Surely an affair has to be entered into voluntarily by both parties, does it not ? I could understand if she had accused a top official of (for example) seeking to have sex with her if she was not so inclined, but cannot see how having an affair can be anything but consensual.

  2. AntC said,

    November 7, 2021 @ 4:05 pm

    @Philip, read the WaPo article, and apply a bit of political nous.

    He is a senior Party official, and married, and 40 years older than she. The tradition of taking concubines persists in the upper (and not so upper) levels of CCP.

    "affair" is a euphemism. "Zhang … pressured Peng to have sex". "sexual assault allegation"

    Seems the #MeToo movement has a way to go in the Taylor household.

  3. Phil H said,

    November 7, 2021 @ 8:43 pm

    Peng says that the sex was coercive.
    This is all true, but calling this censorship a ‘game’ gives the wrong impression of how effective it is. This censorship works: for the not-particularly-internet-savvy vast majority, it’s like this accusation never happened.

  4. AntC said,

    November 7, 2021 @ 9:57 pm

    There may be more going on than meets the eye. (Well in the murky world of CCP power struggles, of course there is; I mean something specific about this timing.) Given the (alleged) events occurred several years ago, why make them public now?

    Xi Jinping's reign needs to be endorsed by the Party ruling Committee early next year. "His anti-corruption campaign has led to the downfall of prominent incumbent and retired Communist Party officials" sez wp.

    Zhang is though to be more allied with former leader Jiang Zemin's counter-Xi faction. These 'revelations' could be a means to discredit/emasculate Zhang.

    Perhaps Peng has again been 'coerced' — this time to speak out about an incident she'd rather forget. A quickly-covered-up Weibo blog would be more than adequate for the murky purposes.

  5. Arthur Waldron said,

    November 7, 2021 @ 11:51 pm

    彭帥 is reportedly pregnant. She is 35 and unwilling to kill the baby. May be her last chance at motherhood. So lots under the surface. Loved Zhang. This is what I hear. Best to all! Arthur

  6. Phil H said,

    November 8, 2021 @ 1:29 am

    OK, so this is somewhat worthy of comment. A few posts back, some of the people on this blog expressed suspicion about me being some kind of CPC agent. I’m not, but it is an understandable worry given the large amount of propaganda activities that the Chinese government undertakes.
    Now consider Arthur Waldron. I could be way off base, so apologies if I am. But that comment is exactly the kind of way in which Chinese propaganda is done: not direct and confrontational, but diverting attention away from the issue. I wonder if he has a brother named Godfree…

  7. AntC said,

    November 8, 2021 @ 2:43 am

    彭帥 is reportedly pregnant.

    I know truth was an early casualty, but the sources I find with this claim, also claim the child is Zhang's. And yet the liaison ended ~3 years ago.

    One report: "After reading Peng Shuai’s Weibo seriously, some netizens found that “Peng Shuai is pregnant.” This reasoning conclusion is a bit gossip, " "

    Loved Zhang. is not consistent with the Weibo post.

    So even in the evidence-lite realm surrounding CCP, this is straining credulity.

    This is the usual spread of disinformation to muddy the waters so nobody trusts anything. (On the same level as claiming Covid was developed at a lab in Fort Detrick in U.S.A.)

    for the not-particularly-internet-savvy vast majority, it’s like this [the initial] accusation never happened.

    I don't think so: as Prof Mair's post points out, PRC netizens are adept at circumventing the censorship; screenshots of the Weibo blog are already everywhere. The 'not-particularly-internet-savvy' are going to learn of it by old-fashioned word of mouth.

    OTOH, if the purpose is to discredit Zhang, that it now appears 'it never happened' is irrelevant. CCP seniors now know why Peng is under house arrest.

  8. wanda said,

    November 8, 2021 @ 2:02 pm

    I take issue with Victor Mair's wording in this blog post. She did not accuse him of an "affair." I agree with Phillip Taylor here; one does not "accuse" someone of an affair but rather "reveal" it. She is accusing him of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    November 8, 2021 @ 2:49 pm

    "…Peng launched her accusation of sexual assault and prolonged liaison on her Twitter-like Weibo account."

  10. AntC said,

    November 8, 2021 @ 3:44 pm

    @wanda, the Weibo blog post this all started from was in Mandarin. I wonder what words Peng herself (or rather the author of the blog) used to describe it, and whether "affair" is a reasonable translation?

    For comparison wrt the usage of English in the WaPo article, and other news outlets: the liaison between a TV Celebrity/to-be President of U.S.A. and a Porn Star is often described as an 'affair'; I've seen some of Jeffrey Epstein's liaisons called 'affair'; Senator Matt Gaetz's alleged sexual relationships get called 'affairs'.

  11. Phil H said,

    November 10, 2021 @ 9:45 am

    "PRC netizens…circumventing…screenshots…word of mouth."
    No, you've misunderstood the numbers.
    Of all the things I wish people outside China understood, this ranks high. Chinese censorship is one of the most successful information-twisting exercises ever carried out. But it doesn't work the way you think.
    Lots of people in China know how to use VPNs, and some proportion of them use their VPNs for the purpose of obtaining non-sanctioned information (as opposed to, say, gaming or porn). But when I say lots, I'd put the number in the low millions. That's a very small fraction of the population. Obtaining and using a VPN is a hassle, and the vast, vast majority do not bother.
    When Prof Mair said that screenshots are out, those are available outside the GFW. Inside, they're not circulating.
    I can tell you for a fact that average gossipy housewives don't know about the Peng case. I asked.
    This is how Chinese censorship works: it's porous, but blanket enough that the sparks of information get smothered.
    I don't know anything about how much senior people in the Party know, because I don't know any of them. But it is clear that the government has decided it is important to maintain widespread ignorance of many scandals associated with senior politicians; and they do so very effectively.
    If you care about free speech, I can't emphasise enough how important it is to understand this: how real censorship works. It's not absolute. Drips and drabs of information get through. But in the absence of a free media to join the dots and make arguments, those points of information never add up to anything. So the government manages to steer narratives and perspectives extremely effectively without having to shut down every last little leak of information. The fact that a few hundred thousand people did find hear about Peng's accusation makes no difference: they can never write about it.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    November 15, 2021 @ 12:09 am

    "‘Deep concern’: WTA speaks out after Chinese tennis star vanishes"

    The WTA, which governs women’s tennis, finally broke its silence on Monday about Chinese player Peng Shuai who has reportedly been missing for the last 10 days after making allegations of sexual abuse against a senior politician in her homeland.

    In a statement the WTA called for the allegations to be “investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship”.

    Peng, 35, a doubles champion at Wimbledon and the French Open, has been erased from Chinese internet and social media sites since accusing former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of rape on her Weibo account — the equivalent of Twitter.

    It is the first time that the #MeToo movement has reached the highest echelons of the ruling Communist Party….

    A bizarre aspect of this case which has not been discussed anywhere is that Zhang Gaoli's wife was involved in the initial invitation that brought Peng Shuai to Zhang's house the first time he asked the tennis star for sex.

  13. AntC said,

    November 15, 2021 @ 3:37 am

    Same story syndicated in Taiwan.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    November 15, 2021 @ 7:42 am

    "WTA Tour Seeks Chinese Inquiry Into Player’s Sexual Assault Accusation"

    Calls for an investigation into allegations by the Chinese player Peng Shuai came with the threat that the tour might walk away from its deep ties to China.

    WTA Demands Chinese Inquiry Into Peng Shaui's Sexual-Assault Accusation – The New York Times (

    Christopher Clarey, NYT (11/14/21)

  15. AntC said,

    November 18, 2021 @ 3:49 am

    WTA questions authenticity of email [purportedly] from Peng Shuai "Chinese state-run media releases suspicious email from tennis star"

    "[WTA Chairman and CEO Steve] Simon said he has a "hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email" his organization had received. "

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