Ms Chen, a plump woman in her late fifties, slurps oysters at Hong Kong’s chic Conrad Hotel. She wears a scarlet red Chinese dress with a deep slit, a qipao, which is two sizes too small for her. Through the split you can see the suspenders that hold up her stockings.

It’s 1997. Chen wants to tell her story to an American journalist. She wants to tell him how in 1962, when she was fourteen and beautiful and innocent, she had sex for the first time with Mao Zedong, China’s supreme leader. She had been selected, presumably by himself, from the song and dance group of the Chinese Air Force. It was the beginning of a long relationship that may not have started voluntarily, but in the end she hoped to take advantage and climb the social ladder. After all, wasn’t she the woman who had best pleased Mao?

She wanted to sell the story to the journalist for a lot of money, but he was not very interested. Years later, in 2011, he wrote an article about it.

Almost sixty years after Chen ended up in Mao’s bed, on November 2, 2021, a long message from Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai (35) appears on the social medium Weibo. In it, she accuses former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual abuse, which allegedly took place three years ago. Zhang is forty years older than her. According to Peng, he forced her to have sex in his house, with the knowledge of his wife.

Zhang was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee from 2012 to 2017. That made him one of the seven most powerful politicians in the country. The message disappears from Weibo within half an hour, Peng himself is not heard from again in the following days.

Although nearly sixty years have passed since 1962, Chen and Peng are examples of young women who feel called to or coerced into having sex with the powerful old men at the very top of the Communist Party of China. The major difference between the two is that Chen has fallen into oblivion while Peng is living in the #MeToo era. This means that the mistress culture that already existed in the Chinese empires and continues to the present is no longer just accepted. For the first time, the party is forced to respond to allegations of sexual assault in front of the entire world.

The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai is everywhere and many, leading the WTA women’s tennis association, are demanding clarification of the events. This is driving the Communist Party into a corner in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in February.

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Tennisster Peng Shuai after a match at the Australian Open in 2019.
Photo Mark Schiefelbein / AP

The state media has so far ignored all allegations of sexual abuse. They responded in recent days by publishing an email purportedly from Peng, with photos and a video. Peng also had a video conversation with chairman Thomas Bach, but even then it remained unclear to what extent she was free in her actions. The Chinese side has not said a word about the abuse. All Chinese efforts to calm the unrest have so far failed.


Of the Chinese leaders, Mao was especially regarded as a womanizer who often had sex with several young women, in many cases minors, at the same time. Usually these affairs ran parallel to one of his four marriages and his wives were just in the know. This became known worldwide through the biography about Mao’s private life, written by his personal physician Li Zhisui. It states, among other things, that Mao never brushed his teeth and refused to wash his genitals. There was no need, he thought: that genitals would become clean again when he dipped it in a woman’s vaginal fluid.

Also read the 1994 review of Li Zhisui’s book: The Intimate Life of Chairman Mao

Journalist Jin Zhong wrote in 2011 about the statements Mao’s mistress Chen had made to him about the rest of the party leadership. She told him that the entire summit at the time, with the exception of the “opium addict” Marshal Lin Biao and the “physically weak” General Chen Yun, were having extramarital affairs. That would also apply to future leader Deng Xiaoping and former prime minister Zhou Enlai. According to her, extramarital sex is the rule, refraining from it is the exception.

Intelligence services

What Chen tells is fanciful, flowery – and unverifiable. It falls into a Hong Kong tradition of gossip and backbiting books about the Chinese party elite that, until a few years ago, were happily bought by mainland Chinese visiting freer Hong Kong. But British and American intelligence at least valued her testimonies and the British therefore allowed her to emigrate to the United Kingdom.

Chen describes a culture where unrestricted sex—voluntary or not—with whomever the leaders want is an obvious privilege. This privilege seems to be a direct continuation of China’s court tradition, in which the emperors maintained a harem of sometimes ten thousand women.

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Chen emphatically places himself in that imperial tradition. She sees herself as a concubine, an imperial concubine whose social status can rise through her role at the side of the emperor. Journalist Jin Zhong writes: “She wanted to be famous so that people would immediately think of her when Mao’s name came up. Just as the famous concubine Yang Guifei is associated with Emperor Minghuang of the Tang(dynasty).”

The women did not attract attention themselves, they were ‘chosen’ for this

Peng has a very different view of the abuse of power she has become a victim of. In her statement on Weibo, she calls herself a moth that dances around the flames, flames that will consume her. She predicts that her confession will have as much effect as smashing eggs on a rock: the Party remains unmoved, does not investigate further and buries her story.

Both women did not seek contact with the two powerful men of their own accord: they were ‘chosen’ to do so. Peng attracted attention with her tennis achievements, Chen as a member of the Air Force Singing and Dancing troupe. The young girls from such army groups were asked not only to perform for Mao and dance with him, but also to “make tea” in his private quarters: usually a euphemism for sex, although it is questionable whether that was clear beforehand for the girls.

It was very honorable for girls of such a group at first, because they got close to the leader. Mao had an almost divine status: he was the Red Sun that shone upon all mankind.

There were often several young girls in his bedroom. The most famous was Zhang Yufeng, who originally worked on the train that took Mao across the country. Like a true imperial concubine, she worked her way up to Mao’s personal secretary and acquired a power greater than that of Mao’s legal wife Jiang Qing at the time. For example, she was on the groundbreaking visit that US President Richard Nixon made to China in 1972.

When Mao was dying, Zhang decided who could come near him. It was also she who understood or said she understood his unintelligible utterances, and who thus in fact determined on his behalf what happened in China.

For a woman, that is still the highest attainable in Chinese politics: a powerful role behind the scenes. No woman has ever been elected to the Standing Committee of the Party. And while enterprising women in Chinese business may come a long way, it is still common for business meetings to include women whose job it is to serve tea, or more than that.

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It is unknown whether Xi Jinping has any mistresses. Yet he too is in some way in the tradition of Mao and the emperors: his wife Peng Liyuan was a famous singer with the People’s Liberation Army.

Easy to ignore

For Peng Shuai, who writes that she also voluntarily had an affair with Zhang Gaoli, it must have also felt like an honor at first when her mother was asked to take her daughter to a prearranged spot, where she could board Zhang’s driver. At least this is what happened according to Peng, according to her statement on Weibo. She did not state how old she was when this happened, although it is clear that she was of age.

Her mother initially thought Peng would only drink tea and play mahjong with Zhang, Peng said. But her mother must also have understood that it would not be bad for her daughter’s career and position if she were to hang out with Zhang.

A foreign physiotherapist who has worked with many Chinese top athletes says that other tennis players also received many expensive gifts from high-ranking contacts and that it was easier for them to travel abroad than athletes without those connections. Due to patient confidentiality, she does not want her name in the newspaper and she also does not want to mention the names of specific tennis players.

Peng Shuai says in her post that Zhang was careful not to smuggle in recording equipment. Not for nothing: without hard evidence it is very easy for the CPC to completely ignore these kinds of things.

Read more about the Peng Shuai case: Peng Shuai is back, but the WTA isn’t done with China yet

That is no longer possible. That Peng’s statement worldwide viral This must have really irritated the party leaders. And another usual reflex, namely making the complainant disappear, also backfires this time. That is why there is only one other instrument that the party uses when there is criticism: bite off. On Tuesday, a government spokesman said the “evil hype” of “some people” must end. But that will probably not silence the call for clarification either.

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