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China’s silence on Peng Shuai shows the limits of Beijing’s propaganda

When Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused a former senior executive of sexual assault earlier this month, authorities turned to a proven strategy. At home, the country’s censors have brushed aside any mention of the allegations. Overseas, a few reporters affiliated with the state focused on trying to allay concerns about Ms. Peng’s safety.

Beijing appears to be relying on a two-pronged approach of staying silent and waiting for the world to move on. The approach suggests that the country’s sprawling propaganda apparatus has limited options for changing the narrative without drawing more attention to the uncomfortable allegations that Beijing is simply hoping to go away.

On social media platforms and other digital public places in China, the meticulous work of censors left almost no sign that Ms. Peng ever accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier, of sexual assault. Like a museum from an earlier reality, its social media account remains, with no further updates or comments.

These tactics have worked for China in the past, at least for China. In recent years, officials have relied on harsh censorship and a nationalist narrative of Western interference to shift responsibility for issues such as the Covid-19 epidemic to human rights violations in Xinjiang.

This time around, however, the #MeToo accusation of a lauded and patriotic athlete involving a top executive does not have a simple fix in Beijing’s propaganda toolbox. Any new narrative will most likely have to acknowledge the allegations in the first place and require the approval of China’s top leadership.

“The Central Propaganda Bureau does not dare to speak on its own about a former member of the Standing Committee,” said Deng Yuwen, former editor of a Communist Party newspaper, referring to Mr. Zhang’s position within of the body that holds ultimate power within the party. . “It should be approved by Xi Jinping.”

“For them, it is not only a matter of propaganda, but also a matter of national security,” continued Mr. Deng, who now lives in the United States.

Beijing’s level of censorship to end discussion of Ms. Peng’s allegations has little precedent, said Xiao Qiang, a researcher at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.

For the Chinese authorities, the course of action for now seems to be one of inaction. On foreign sites like Twitter and Facebook that are blocked in China, the response has been muted and sketchy. When Beijing-backed reporters approached Ms. Peng on overseas social media sites, they carefully avoided mentioning the nature of her accusations or their target.

Instead, they sought to end questions about Ms Peng’s fate, posting photos and videos of the tennis star that appeared designed to show she was safe despite her disappearance from public life. . Ms Peng also appeared in a live video call with the head of the International Olympic Committee which only raised more concerns.

For some, Ms. Peng’s apparent staging was a reminder of the authorities’ use of forced confessions and other inmate video testimony for propaganda purposes. In 2019, a state-run news service released a “proof of life” video of Abdurehim Heyit, a prominent Uyghur poet and folk musician, to allay international concerns that he had died in a camp. internment.

When Peter Dahlin, a Swedish activist, was arrested by authorities in 2016, he was forced to speak in a Chinese propaganda video about his so-called crimes. He said in a recent interview that he viewed the gradual publication by state media of photos and videos of Ms. Peng as evidence that Beijing was monitoring her movements primarily to silence her while waiting for the outcry to end.

“She is obviously under custody control,” Mr. Dahlin said. “Everything she does will be scripted from start to finish; we will tell him exactly what to do, how to act, how to smile.

A waiting game has helped Beijing foil attacks from individual critics in the past, whether from dissidents or sports stars. When retired Chinese soccer star Hao Haidong called for the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party in 2020, officials purged his career records and waited for him to fade from memory. Although Ms Peng is bringing more international support, Chinese officials may be betting that the cycle of shock and anger on social media will eventually dissipate.

For Beijing, the concern is that the flashback could interfere with the upcoming Winter Olympics, which China is hosting.

“They must appease not only the usual critics in the West, but also the tennis stars and decidedly apolitical sports associations abroad, while burying any mention of the original accusation of Ms Peng,” said Richard McGregor, researcher. principal at the Lowy Institute in Australia and author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers”.

“It’s no surprise that the propaganda system is floundering,” he said.

Oddly enough, the only recent post about Ms Peng that remains on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, is from the French Embassy in China. He calls on Beijing to respect its commitments in the fight against violence against women. But comments apparently organized on the message accused France of interfering in China’s affairs. Similarly, some Chinese journalists have taken to Western social media sites to question the motives of those who have expressed concern about Ms. Peng.

“Can a girl fake such a sunny smile under pressure?” Those who suspect Peng Shuai of being under duress, how dark they must be inside, ”Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, wrote on Twitter.

The account that Ms. Peng is being used by hostile foreign forces to undermine China has been picked up by other state media workers on Twitter. The messages have done little to allay concerns outside of China.

“There isn’t even a story to really distract; there is nothing substantial beyond character attacks against the West and the Western media, ”said David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, a research program in Hong Kong. He added: “It really is the best they could have come up with.”

In China, it is still not clear how many people are aware of the controversy. On Baidu, a Chinese search engine, queries for “Peng Shuai” reached nearly two million on Nov. 3, the day after his accusation was released, but have since fallen to tens of thousands. Ms. Peng’s frozen Weibo account, which does not appear in search results for her name, has gained 59,000 subscribers since its publication – a blow in a country where the biggest celebrities have tens of millions of subscribers.

Mr. Xiao, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, is the founder of China Digital Times, a website that monitors Chinese Internet controls. Her group tracked hundreds of keywords, some having only a weak connection to Ms. Peng, that had been blocked in posts and searches. Only the most sensitive subjects – like Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader; and the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 – have such long lists of blocked terms, he said.

In the weeks that followed, the censors began to refine their approach. Some general keywords, such as “tennis” were restored in searches. Yet, said Xiao, the wide gap between what can be said outside China and what can be said inside the country could continue to hamper attempts to control the matter.

“They know they can’t feel safe. The great firewall is leaking, ”he said, using a term that refers to the Chinese blocks and filters that keep foreign social media out. “Millions of people are leaping over the wall to read about it. “

Amy Chang Dog contributed report.

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