Why Peng Shuai frustrates the Chinese propaganda machine
The Chinese government has become extremely effective in controlling what the country’s 1.4 billion people think and say.
But influencing the rest of the world is another matter, as Peng Shuai has demonstrated.
Chinese state media and their reporters have offered one piece of evidence after another to prove that the Chinese tennis star is safe and sound despite his public accusation of sexual assault against a powerful former vice premier.
A Beijing-controlled outlet claimed to have obtained an email she wrote in which she denied the charges. Another offered a video of Ms. Peng at a dinner party, in which she and her companions argued openly enough about the date to prove that it was recorded last weekend.
The international outcry has only intensified. Instead of persuading the world, China’s clumsy response has become a classic example of its inability to communicate with an audience it cannot control through censorship and coercion.
The ruling Communist Party communicates through one-way, top-down messaging. He seems to have a hard time understanding that persuasive accounts need to be backed up by facts and verified by credible and independent sources.
In its official comments, China’s Foreign Ministry mainly dodged questions about Ms Peng, claiming first that it was not aware of the case, and then that the topic was outside its purview. On Tuesday, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson, relied on a familiar tactic: to question the motives behind the coverage of Ms. Peng’s allegations. “I hope some people stop the malicious hype, let alone politicize it,” he told reporters.
China has become more sophisticated in recent years in using the power of the internet to advance a more positive and less critical narrative – an effort that seems to work from time to time. But deep down, the Chinese propaganda machine still believes that the best way to make the problems go away is to yell at the other side. He may also threaten to shut off access to his vast market and booming economy to silence businesses and governments that don’t buy his line.
“Messages like these are meant to be a show of power: ‘We tell you she’s okay, and who are you to say otherwise? »» Mareike Ohlberg, member of the German Marshall Fund, a research institute, wrote on Twitter. “It’s not about convincing people but about intimidating and demonstrating the power of the state.”
China has a history of incredible testimonies. A prominent jailed lawyer denounced his son on state television for fleeing the country. Hong Kong bookstore manager who was arrested for selling private life books of Chinese leaders noted after his release he had to make a dozen recorded confessions before his captors were satisfied.
This time around, the women’s tennis world is not playing along and has suggested that it will stop hosting events in China until it is sure Ms. Peng is truly free from government control. The biggest names in tennis – Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic, among many others – also don’t seem to fear losing access to a potential market of 1.4 billion tennis fans. The pushback is problematic as the Beijing Winter Olympics are only weeks away from opening.
The country’s huge army of propagandists have failed to meet the expectations of its top leader, Xi Jinping, to take control of the global narrative about China. But he shouldn’t bear all the blame: The failure is rooted in the controlling nature of China’s authoritarian system.
“It can make Peng Shuai play any role, including pretending to be free,” Pin Ho, a New York-based media businessman, wrote on Twitter. For Chinese officials in charge of crisis management, he continued, such control is routine. “But for the free world,” he said, “it’s even scarier than a forced confession.”
One of the biggest gifts Ms. Peng is not free to say what she thinks is that her name remains censored on the Chinese internet.
“As long as the coverage about her inside and outside of China is different, she doesn’t speak freely,” said Rose Luqiu, assistant professor of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Despite the wave of concerns over Ms Peng’s well-being on Twitter and other blocked online platforms in China, the Chinese public has little knowledge of the talks.
As the momentum for the #whereispengshuai hashtag gained momentum on Twitter on Friday night, I found no discussion of the issue on Chinese social media. Yet Ms. Peng had clearly drawn the attention of the politically observant Chinese. I messaged a friend in Beijing who was generally aware of hot topics and asked her usually, in code words, if she had heard of a huge campaign to find someone. “PS? The friend guessed using Ms. Peng’s initials.
It is difficult to estimate how many Chinese have learned of Ms Peng’s claim, which she detailed in a Chinese social media post this month. His post – which named Zhang Gaoli, a former top Communist Party leader, as his attacker – was deleted within minutes. A Weibo social media user asked in a comment whether saving a screenshot of Ms. Peng’s post was incriminating. Another Weibo user, in a comment, described being too afraid to share the post.
They have good reason to be afraid. Beijing has made it easier to detain or charge people for what they say online. Many people have their social media accounts deleted simply for sharing content that censors have deemed inappropriate, including content related to #MeToo.
China has been bitter about its poor image in the mainstream Western news media and has been talking for years about taking control of the narrative. Xi said he hopes the country has the ability to shape a global narrative consistent with its growing status in the world. “Tell the story of China well,” he asked. “Create a credible, kind and respectable image of China. “
Official media have suggested that Covid-19 came out of a lab in the United States and spread the unproven claim on Facebook and Twitter. China posted thousands of videos on YouTube and other Western platforms in which Uyghurs called themselves “very free” and “very happy” as the Communist Party carried out repressive policies against them and other ethnic Muslim minorities in China. the Xinjiang region.
In reality, China has been less respected, and its narratives less credible, since Xi took power nine years ago. It has cracked down on the relatively independent media and eliminated critical online voices in the country. He unleashed diplomats and young nationalists who would roar back any hint of criticism or disparagement.
“There are three things that are inevitable in life: the life, death and humiliation of China,” one reader commented in one of my recent columns.
Despite China’s relatively rapid economic growth and relatively proficient response to the pandemic, the country’s deteriorating human rights record and uncompromising international stance are not improving its image. China’s negative opinion in the vast majority of the world’s advanced economies reached an all-time high last year, according to the Pew Research Center.
China cannot effectively answer questions about Ms. Peng because it cannot even directly address the problem.
The subject of Ms. Peng’s sexual assault allegation, Mr. Zhang, was one of the most powerful officials in the Communist Party before his retirement. The party views criticism of a top leader as a direct attack on the entire organization, so it will not repeat its allegation. As a result, state media reporters who try to argue that Ms. Peng is okay cannot even refer to it directly.
For Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, the allegation against Mr. Zhang has become “the thing.” “I don’t think Peng Shuai suffered any retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for what people have been talking about,” he said. wrote on Twitter.
Mr. Zhang cannot even be chatted online in China. Those who call him “kimchi” because his first name sounds like the name of an ancient Korean dynasty.
If Mr. Hu, the master of the art of China, could speak more clearly, and if the Chinese people had the freedom to discuss Ms. Peng and her allegations, the official media could figure out how to construct a narrative. Instead, Mr. Hu alternates between trying to change the conversation and trying to shut it down completely.
“For those who really care about Peng Shuai’s safety, his appearances these days are enough to relieve them or eliminate most of their worries,” he wrote. “But for those who aim to attack the Chinese system and boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics, the facts, no matter how many, don’t work for them.”