China's silence on Peng Shuai shows limits of Beijing's propaganda

Within China, tennis star Peng Shuai’s #MeToo allegations have been systematically purged from social media. PHOTO: NYTIMES

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - When Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused a former top leader of sexual assault in November, authorities turned to a tried-and-true strategy. At home, the country's censors scrubbed away any mention of the allegations. Abroad, a few state-affiliated journalists focused narrowly on trying to quash concerns about Ms Peng's safety.

Beijing seems to be relying on a two-pronged approach of maintaining the silence and waiting for the world to move on. The approach suggests that the country's sprawling propaganda apparatus has limited options for shifting the narrative without drawing more attention to the uncomfortable allegations Beijing hopes would just disappear.

On China's social media platforms and other digital public squares, the censors' meticulous work has left almost no sign that Ms Peng had ever accused Mr Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier, of sexual assault. Like a museum to a previous reality, her social media account remains, without new updates or comments.

These tactics have worked for China in the past, at least at home. In recent years, officials have relied on heavy censorship and a nationalistic narrative of Western meddling to deflect blame for issues including the outbreak of Covid-19 to human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

This time, though, the #MeToo accusation from a lauded and patriotic athlete implicating a top leader has no simple solution from Beijing's propaganda toolbox. Any new narrative would most likely have to acknowledge the allegations in the first place and require the approval of top Chinese leaders.

"The central propaganda bureau does not dare go out on its own about a former Standing Committee member," said Mr Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a Communist Party newspaper, referring to Mr Zhang's position in the body that holds ultimate power in the party. "It would have to be approved by Xi Jinping."

"For them, this is not just a propaganda matter, but also an issue of national security," continued Mr Deng, who now lives in the United States.

The level of censorship Beijing deployed to shut down discussion of Ms Peng's allegation has little precedent, said Dr Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.

To Chinese authorities, the plan of action for now appears to be one of inaction. On overseas sites like Twitter and Facebook that are blocked in China, the response has been muted and fragmentary. When Beijing-backed journalists have addressed Ms Peng on overseas social media sites, they have studiously avoided mentioning the nature of her accusations, or their target.

Instead, they have sought to put an end to the questions about Ms Peng's whereabouts, releasing photos and videos of the tennis star that seemed designed to show that she was safe despite having disappeared from public life. Ms Peng also appeared in a live video call with the leader of the International Olympic Committee that only raised more concerns.

To some, the apparent stage-managing of Ms Peng was a reminder of authorities' use of forced confessions and other video testimony from detainees for propaganda. In 2019, a state run news service ran a "proof of life" video of Mr Abdurehim Heyit, a prominent Uyghur folk poet and musician, to quell international concerns that he had died in an internment camp.

When Mr Peter Dahlin, a Swedish activist, was detained 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 saw the state media's gradual release of photos and videos of Ms Peng as evidence that Beijing was monitoring her movements mainly to silence her while waiting for the outcry to die down.

"She is obviously under custodial control," Mr Dahlin said. "Everything she does will be scripted from beginning to end; she will be told exactly what to do, how to act, how to smile."

A waiting game has helped Beijing defang attacks from individual critics in the past, be they dissidents or sports stars. When Mr Hao Haidong, a retired Chinese football star, called for the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party in 2020, officials purged records of his career and waited as he faded from memory.

Though Ms Peng brings more international backing, Chinese officials may be betting the social media cycle of shock and anger will eventually dissipate.

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

"They have to placate not just the usual critics in the West, but also decidedly apolitical tennis stars and sporting associations overseas, while at the same time burying all mention of Ms Peng's original charge," said Mr Richard McGregor, a senior fellow 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.

In a strange turn, the only recent post about Ms Peng that remains on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, is from the French Embassy in China. It calls on Beijing to respect its commitments to combating violence against women. But the seemingly curated comments on the post accused France of meddling in China's affairs. Along similar lines, some Chinese journalists took to Western social media sites to question the motives of those who expressed concern about Peng.

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

The narrative that Ms Peng is being used by hostile foreign forces to undermine China has been echoed by other state media employees on Twitter. The posts have done little to appease concerns outside China.

"There's no narrative even to really distract; there's nothing substantive beyond character attacks on the West and Western media," said Mr David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, a research program in Hong Kong. He added, "This is really the best they've been able to come up with."

Within China, it remains unclear how many people are aware of the controversy. On Baidu, a Chinese search engine, queries for "Peng Shuai" spiked to nearly two million on Nov 3, the day after she posted her accusation, but have since fallen to the tens of thousands.

Ms Peng's frozen Weibo account, which does not appear in search results for her name, has gained 59,000 followers since her post - a blip in a country where top celebrities have tens of millions of followers.

Dr Xiao, the research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, is the founder of China Digital Times, a website that monitors Chinese internet controls. His group has tracked hundreds of keywords, some with only the faintest connection to Peng, that had been blocked from posts and searches. Only the most sensitive topics - like Xi Jinping, China's leader; and the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 - have such long lists of blocked terms, he said.

In the weeks since, censors have begun to fine-tune their approach. Some broad keywords, like "tennis", have been restored in searches. Still, Dr Xiao said, the wide gulf between what can be said outside China and what can be said inside the country could continue to plague attempts to control the topic.

"They know they cannot feel secure. The Great Firewall leaks," he said, using a term that refers to China's blocks and filters that keep out foreign social media. "Millions of people jump the wall to read about it."

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