What tennis player Peng Shuai's sexual abuse claim tells us about China's Me Too movement

ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward reports on the growing Me Too movement in China

It took less than 30 minutes for China’s censors to delete all traces of the sexual allegations made by tennis player Peng Shuai, including all relevant keywords and links to online discussions.

The claims against ex-Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli were made all the more sensational as they were made by one of the country’s top female tennis players.

Peng, who is believed to be in the United States, used Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, to write a post about the years of sexual abuse and coercion she had suffered during a relationship with Zhang Gaoli.

He was a keen tennis fan and had shown an interest in her rising career.

Nothing has been heard from her, nor the accused, since the post was promptly deleted two weeks ago.

Chinese ex-Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli Credit: AP/Dmitry Lovetsky

It was the first time such an accusation had reached the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party, and the swift reaction to erase all traces has of course been read by many as an indication there is veracity to the claims.

Despite deletion of the post, it has still managed to create small shockwaves and propel the country’s Me Too movement back to the fore.

We met the young woman who has been described as the Face of China’s Me Too movement. It is a title Zhou Xiaoxuan - better known by her nickname Xianzi - reluctantly accepts but with a great sense of responsibility.

When the 28-year-old accused a prominent television anchor of sexual assault back in 2014, her claims went viral and her case was one of very few to reach court.

It was eventually dismissed in September this year due to a lack of evidence.

Zhou Xiaoxuan (Xianzi), who filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against a TV host, speaks to her supporters outside a court Credit: AP/Andy Wong

But she has launched an appeal listing items which the police failed to present - a dress she was wearing at the time, which she says must have contained the accused’s DNA, and CCTV footage from outside his dressing room.

The man she has accused, Zhu Jun, is suing Xianzi for defamation.

She said it has taken every bit of strength she has to appeal her case, and she is pursuing it so other women will be encouraged to come forward and share their experiences.

We met Xianzi as the Communist party adopted a historical resolution cementing the power of President Xi and his increasingly authoritarian society.

Since he came to power in 2012, and even more so in the last few years, the space for open discussion in Chinese society has shut down.

Campaigner Li Tingting speaks about the political atmosphere in China and the government's treatment of women's issues

A long-time women’s rights campaigner, Li Tingting, told us she has even noticed in her work place any form of political discussion has ceased or is conducted in hushed tones.

She was one of the Feminist Five detained in 2015 on the eve of International Women's Day for planning a protest about sexual harassment on public transport.

Since then, her activities and phone have been monitored by police.

Despite that, she believes progress is being made. She described an invisible network, one which is growing and constantly adapting to stay active and ahead of the censors.

The Me Too movement has a growing voice in China, it just has trouble being heard.