Peng Shuai, the professional tennis star, publicly accused a former vice premier of China of sexual assault, igniting an online firestorm of attention to a #MeToo allegation that for the first time touched the pinnacles of Communist Party power.
Ms. Peng made the allegation in a post on Tuesday night on her verified account on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. In it, she described an assault that began an on-and-off consensual relationship with Zhang Gaoli, who from 2013 to 2018 served on the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, the top ruling body in China.
The post was removed within minutes, but the allegations swirled through the country’s heavily controlled internet, fueled by the fame of the accuser and the accused. That kept the censors inside China’s Great Firewall scrambling.
Searches of her name and even the word “tennis” appeared to be blocked, reflecting the extraordinary sensitivity within China of discussing misconduct by party leaders.
“The impact of #MeToo has been accumulating for three years,” Lü Pin, an activist who founded the now-banned Chinese online forum Feminist Voices, said in a telephone interview from New Jersey, where she now lives. “When the first women began talking about their experiences three years ago, no one could have imagined that it would reach this high level.”
Ms. Peng’s accusations could not be corroborated. In her post, she acknowledged that she would be unable to produce evidence of her accusation, suggesting at one point that Mr. Zhang had expressed worries that she might record their encounters.
She could not be reached for comment. The State Council, China’s governing body, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The authorities have charged government officials with sexual misconduct before, often in conjunction with corruption investigations. Never before, though, has an accusation of sexual misconduct been leveled publicly against as senior a political leader as Mr. Zhang.
“These allegations are not shocking in substance but are shocking in the target,” Bill Bishop, the founder of Sinocism, a newsletter on Chinese affairs, wrote.
An economist by education, Mr. Zhang, now 75, rose through the ranks of the party and government. He served as governor of Shandong, the coastal province, and then as party secretary in Tianjin, the provincial-level port city on the Bohai Sea. As vice premier from 2013 to 2018, he was one of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, headed then, as now, by China’s leader, Xi Jinping.
“I know that for someone of your eminence, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid,” Ms. Peng wrote in her post, “but 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.”
Women in media, at universities and in the private sector in China have all come forward with accusations of sexual assault and harassment — only to face pushback in the courts and censorship online.
In China, many women say, there remains an ingrained patriarchal tradition of using positions in business or government to gain sexual favors from subordinates or other women. In 2016, the country’s top prosecuting agency listed the exchange of “power for sex recklessly” as one of six traits of senior officials accused of corruption.
The accuser in another high-profile harassment case, Zhou Xiaoxuan, posted a note expressing sympathy for Ms. Peng, illustrating how widely the accusation became known despite the censorship. “I hope she’s safe and sound,” she wrote.
Ms. Zhou, who in 2018 accused a prominent television anchor of sexual harassment four years earlier, emerged as a trailblazer of China’s fledgling #MeToo movement and also a victim of the social and legal challenges women who come forward face. In September, a court in Beijing ruled that she had “tendered insufficient evidence” to prove her case against the anchor, Zhu Jun, who has sued her for slander.
Mr. Zhang retired in 2018, when, according to Ms. Peng’s account, the two resumed a relationship that had begun when he served in Tianjin, which would have been between 2007 and 2012. She said he had first assaulted her after inviting her to play tennis with him and his wife. “I never consented that afternoon, crying all the time,” she wrote, not specifying when exactly the assault occurred.
At the time she was soaring through a professional career that would propel her to a No. 1 ranking in doubles with the Women’s Tennis Association in 2014 and as high as 14th as a singles player.
With her doubles partner, Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan, she won the championship at Wimbledon in 2013 and again at the French Open in 2014. That year, playing singles, she reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open. She remains ranked 189th in singles and 248th in doubles, last playing at the Qatar Total Open in February 2020, according to the association.
She was one of the athletes who broke out of the country’s sports system, which mandates that most train under state coaches and give most of their earnings, even from endorsements, back to the state. She was one of the first to reach an agreement to allow her to train and travel by herself and keep a larger share of the earnings.
Her post continued to circulate in screen shots and other messages even after it was deleted, a testament to the resonance accusations like hers has in Chinese society.
“The censorship is not working,” Ms. Lü, the activist, said. She added that while it was important that people were discussing the issue, “changing policy is the most difficult part.”
Chris Buckley and Hannah Beech contributed reporting. Claire Fu and Liu Yi contributed research.