China’s Treatment of Peng Shuai Should Worry Us All

World Politics Review, 24.11.2021
Howard W. French, corresponsal extranjero y escritor

Late last week, I found myself at a university podium participating in an unusual event, invited by a conservative group to argue against the proposition that the United States should apply a greatly stepped-up boycott, divest and sanction—or BDS—approach in its relations with China.

The person arguing the other side in this debate began by stating that he supported going much further even than BDS. But after this emphatic opening sally, he offered scarce few details of what this might involve or how it would work.

Surprised at how little substance I was left to respond to, I began by speaking to the example of North Korea, a doggedly poor and extremely isolated country whose course has not been altered by some of the most stringent and persistent sanctions in recent history.

I had come prepared to raise many objections to the arguments I expected to hear in defense of sanctions, from the deeply interlocked nature of the U.S. and Chinese economies; to the reluctance of U.S. allies to follow Washington’s lead into confrontation; to the fact that—because Xi Jinping won’t lead China forever, whatever his ambitions—there is a utility in providing cover for Chinese elites that would like to work more closely with the West; to the related need to avoid turning that country into an outright enemy; and finally, to the imperious necessity of joining efforts in fighting climate change, especially between the richest and most powerful of nations.

As it happens, a news story nominally involving sports that unfolded in slow motion last week was providing compelling counterpoints to my arguments of the evening, and beyond. Surprisingly, it was left to me to share it with the audience. This was, of course, the case of Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis player and three-time Olympian who a month ago had publicly accused a former vice-premier—one of the country’s most powerful men—of sexual assault, only to be rendered incommunicado while the Chinese government figured out how to both punish her for breaching the taboo on criticizing a top official and manage the mushrooming propaganda fallout overseas.

Many years ago, I briefly interviewed Peng Shuai early in her career, only to have our conversation broken off by a minder from the official Chinese sports authority, who screamed at her in front of me for speaking with the foreign media, supposedly without prior official permission. Back then, the topic of our interview was purely tennis, but the point he was making to her was clear: You are a representative of the state, and thereby of the Communist Party, wherever you are and whatever you do—and don’t ever forget it.

A couple of hours before my debate last week began, The Washington Post flashed a red-banner news alert atop its home page saying that U.S. President Joe Biden was contemplating a boycott of the Winter Olympics, which will be held in Beijing in February, in implicit connection with Peng’s treatment. Hell, I thought when I saw the alert in my hotel room, there goes my debate position, even before I get started.

As it turned out, though, it would be what lay ahead—and not Peng Shuai’s initial disappearance itself, as bad as it was—that proved most disturbing about this affair to me. Right after the debate, I was swarmed by Chinese students in the audience who, to my surprise, said that my comments about Peng were the first they had heard of a story that had already been all over international news coverage and social media for several days. The leading stars of tennis, including Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, had all issued statements criticizing Peng’s treatment. On a whim, the next morning, I decided to see what friends in China knew of the matter, sending them a widely circulated glossy portrait of Peng Shuai from the cover of Women’s Health magazine, but without comment.

What is increasingly clear is that China’s information control regime is a threat to people everywhere.

Over breakfast, I was shaken to see that these images, sent over China’s all-but-universal social media app, WeChat, had never been delivered. Indeed, they didn’t even show up on my own phone’s WeChat stream. Next, I sent the same magazine cover, again without comment, to some Chinese friends in other countries. The first of them to respond wrote back asking, “Who’s this?”—demonstrating how impermeable the Chinese information ecosystem, of which WeChat has become a dominant component, can be.

The saga of Peng Shuai is in fact two sagas in one. The first involves her extremely serious charge of abuse at the hands of a very powerful man. While this is hardly a situation limited to China, it is true that the conversation around gender equality and freedom from harassment is much less developed there than it is in much of the West, and that a vanguard of feminist activists in that country—and their speech—is heavily policed by authorities.

The second saga, though, involves a combination of rigorous and systematic censorship in China innovatively enforced on a social media platform, WeChat, that is vastly more pervasive and socially indispensable than anything comparable outside of that country. And alongside this, there have been the disturbing, neo-Stalinist methods Beijing has used to try to bend reality to the political needs of the moment, much as forced confessions and show trials were commonly used in another era.

On the first point, censorship, what is increasingly clear is that China’s information control regime is a threat to people everywhere. It prevents people in China and—to a surprising extent, as my recent experiences demonstrated—even Chinese people located outside of their own country from exposure to points of view, inconvenient news and interpretations of world events that run strongly counter to Beijing’s approved narratives. This is the same problem that is ravaging the political culture of the United States—the lack of a shared set of facts between conservatives and progressives—only on an exponentially larger and more dangerous scale. The point is not that Chinese people should be made to agree with or accept non-sanctioned views from foreign sources, which would be as undesirable as it is unfeasible, but rather that they should at least be exposed to them. The same principle, of course, should apply to foreign news coverage of China—and indeed it usually is, at least by high-end Western outlets, which routinely seek the Chinese government’s comments on stories that involve that country and interview Chinese experts who freely criticize the positions of Western governments.

The neo-Stalinist piece of this puzzle is not quietly insidious, like information management, but brazen. In an attempt to kill off the story of Peng and her allegations, as well as criticism of China for having disappeared her from social media and public view, the tennis player has been trotted out and made to appear in a number of highly contrived settings in recent days, all involving a kind of forced merriment. In one already infamous clip, she showed up at a dinner with “friends” at which a camera crew seems to have been carefully prepositioned. At another, she smiled while surrounded by kids at a Beijing tennis event. The words so far attributed to Peng have been limited to statements along the lines of, “I’m at home resting, and please respect my privacy.” Nowhere has she been allowed to speak to the allegations of forced sex and abuse that surfaced nearly a month ago, and she also appears to be anything but free in her movements.

Two starkly contrasting international approaches to this kind of situation have emerged in the course of these events, both by international sporting bodies, with eerie echoes of my debate last week. The Women’s Tennis Association, whose presence in China has grown with tremendous speed since the time I was based in the country in the early 2000s, has staked out an uncompromising position, demanding that Peng’s freedoms be restored and her allegations investigated, potentially imperiling its lucrative business in the country.

The other approach has come from the International Olympic Committee, whose chief circulated a video recording of a conversation with Peng that didn’t even touch upon what has happened to her, as if this were proof that, as the old police saying goes, “there’s nothing to see here, keep moving along.”

I am still skeptical about the idea of broadly increasing sanctions against China as a way of influencing its behavior, but as the IOC has shown through its weasel-like, complicit behavior, sometimes those who pose as a country’s best friends are actually doing the work of its enemies.

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