Why Peng Shuai Frustrates China’s Propaganda Machine

The Chinese government has become very effective in controlling what the country’s 1.4 billion people think and talk about.

But the impact on the rest of the world is different, as Peng Shuai aptly explained.

Chinese state media and its journalists have presented evidence after evidence to prove the safety of the Chinese tennis player despite her public accusation of sexually assaulting the powerful former deputy prime minister.

A Beijing-controlled outlet claimed to have it e-mail I wrote in which she denied the accusations. Another showed a video of Mrs. Bing at a dinner, in which she and her companions vividly discussed the date to prove it was taped last weekend.

The international outcry only grew louder. Instead of persuading the world, China’s harsh reaction has become a typical example of its inability to communicate with an audience it cannot control through censorship and coercion.

The ruling Communist Party communicates through one-way messages from top to bottom. He seems to find it difficult to understand that persuasive accounts must be supported by facts and verified by reliable and independent sources.

In its official comments, the Chinese Foreign Ministry mostly evaded questions about Ms. Peng, initially claiming that she was not familiar with the topic, and then that the topic fell outside her purview. On Tuesday, a spokesman for Zhao Lijian relied on a familiar tactic: questioning the motives behind coverage of Ms. Peng’s allegations. “I hope some people will stop malicious propaganda, let alone politicizing it,” he told reporters.

China has become more sophisticated in recent years in using the power of the internet to present a more positive and less critical narrative — an effort that seems to work from time to time. But at its core, the Chinese propaganda machine still believes that the best way to hide problems is to yell on the other side. It could also threaten to shut down access to its vast market and booming economy to silence companies and governments that don’t buy its line.

Messages like this are meant to show strength: ‘We tell you it’s okay, and who are you to say otherwise?’ Marika Olberg, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a research institute, books on Twitter. “It is not meant to impress the people but to intimidate and demonstrate the power of the state.”

China has a history of unbelievable testimonials. A prominent imprisoned lawyer denounced her son on state television for fleeing the country. A Hong Kong bookstore manager detained for selling books on the private lives of Chinese leaders said after his release that he had to make dozens of taped confessions before pleasing his captors.

This time around, the world of women’s tennis isn’t playing along, and it has been suggested that it will stop holding events in China until it is confirmed that Ms. Peng is truly free of government control. The biggest names in tennis – Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic, among many others – don’t seem to be afraid of losing access to a potential market of 1.4 billion tennis fans. This decline presents a problem because the Winter Olympics in Beijing are only weeks away from the opening.

The country’s massive propaganda army has failed in the expectations of its supreme leader, Xi Jinping, to dominate the global narrative about China. But it shouldn’t take all the blame: the failure is rooted in the controlling nature of China’s authoritarian regime.

“You can have Peng Shuai play any role, including making a presentation about freedom,” said Pin Ho, a New York-based media entrepreneur, books on Twitter. This control is routine for Chinese officials responsible for crisis management, he added. But to the free world, he said, “this is more frightening than forced confessions.”

One of the biggest giveaways that Ms. Peng has not been free to speak what she thinks is that her name is still censored on the Chinese internet.

“As long as the coverage about her inside and outside China is different, she does not speak freely,” said Rose Lukio, associate professor of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Despite growing concern about Ms. Ping’s well-being on Twitter and other internet platforms that are banned in China, the Chinese public has little knowledge of the discussions.

Late Friday, with the hashtag #whereispengshuai gaining momentum on Twitter, I couldn’t find any discussion of the question on Chinese social media. However, Ms. Peng has clearly caught the attention of politically committed Chinese. I texted a friend in Beijing who was usually on top of the hot topics and asked her generally, in code words, if she had heard of a massive campaign to find someone. “note?” Guess the friend using Mrs. Ping’s initials.

It is difficult to estimate how many Chinese have learned of Ms Peng’s allegations, which she described in detail in a Chinese social media post this month. Her post – which described Zhang Gaoli, a former leader of the Communist Party, as her abuser – was deleted within minutes. A Weibo social media user asked in a comment whether saving a screenshot of Ms. Bing’s post is condemnable. Another Weibo user, in a comment, described his extreme fear of publishing the post.

They have good reasons to be afraid. Beijing has made it easier for people to be detained or charged for what they say online. Many people’s social media accounts are being deleted simply for sharing content deemed inappropriate by censorship, including #MeToo linked content.

China has been bitter about its poor image in the mainstream Western media and has talked for years about controlling the narrative. Mr. Xi said he hopes the country will have the ability to shape a global narrative that matches its rising standing in the world. And he instructed: “Tell China’s story well.” “Create a credible, likeable and respected image of China.”

State media raised a suggestion that Covid-19 emerged from a laboratory in the United States and published the unconfirmed claims on Facebook and Twitter. China released thousands of videos on YouTube and other Western platforms in which Uyghurs said they were “very free” and “very happy” while the Communist Party was implementing repressive policies against them and other Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

Indeed, China is less respected and its narratives less credible, since Mr. Xi came to power nine years ago. He suppressed the relatively independent media and eliminated critical voices online within the country. He unleashed the diplomats and the nationalist youth who were responding to any hint of criticism or belittlement.

One reader commented on Lee’s recent column: “There are three things that are inescapable in life: life, death, and the humiliation of China.”

Despite China’s relatively rapid economic growth and relatively effective response to the epidemic, the country’s deteriorating human rights record and tough international stance are not helping improve its image. Negative views of China in the vast majority of the world’s advanced economies reached a historic high last year, according to the Pew Research Center.

China cannot answer questions about Ms. Ping effectively because it cannot even address the problem directly.

The subject of Ms. Peng’s allegation of sexual assault was Mr. Zhang, one of the most powerful Communist Party officials before his retirement. The party sees criticism of a great leader as a direct attack on the entire organization, so it will not repeat its claims. As a result, state media journalists trying to say Ms. Ping is okay cannot refer to her directly.

For Hu Xijin, editor of the national newspaper Global Times, the allegations against Mr Zhang have become “the thing”. “I don’t think Peng Shuai has received the retaliation and suppression that the foreign media speculated about because of the thing people talked about,” books on Twitter.

You can’t even discuss Mr. Zhang on the Internet in China. Those who call it ‘Kimchi’ because its real name is similar to that of an ancient Korean dynasty.

If Mr. Hu, the master of spinning in China, could speak more clearly, and if the Chinese people were free to discuss Ms. Peng and her claims, the official media might understand how to construct the narrative. Instead, Mr. Hu alternates between trying to change the conversation and trying to shut it down completely.

“For those who truly care about the safety of Peng Shuai, its appearance these days is enough to relieve them or eliminate most of their concerns,” he wrote. “But for those who aim to attack the Chinese regime and boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics, the facts, no matter how many, are not working in their favour.”

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