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5 January 2022

How Peng Shuai exposed the limits of China’s power

The sinister case of the Chinese tennis star reveals the choice confronting Beijing: coercion at home, or soft power abroad?

By Katie Stallard

Peng Shuai’s social media post vanished from the internet within minutes. It was a detailed account, published late in the evening on 2 November 2021, alleging that Zhang Gaoli, China’s former vice-premier, had forced her to have sex with him around three years ago. Peng, one of the country’s best-known tennis stars, described how scared she had been, how she had cried and said no, and how she knew it was hopeless to speak out. Zhang had served alongside the Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the top ranks of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Peng predicted she would be destroyed “like an egg cracking against a rock or a moth to the flame”. But she said she was determined to make the truth known. Then she disappeared.

After top tennis players including Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka demanded to know where she was, Peng reappeared on 20 November in a series of apparently staged videos. She made another appearance on 19 December, giving what was clearly intended to look like an impromptu interview to a Beijing-friendly Singaporean newspaper in which she said she had never accused anyone of sexually assaulting her. But Peng’s colleagues at the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) said they were still unable to reach her and remained unconvinced that she was either safe or free to speak openly. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter that the video interview had only “deepen[ed] concerns about the pressure to which the Chinese government is subjecting her”. In its handling of Peng’s case, Beijing has laid bare the weakness of using brute force to crush dissent.

It might look like the political system prevailed. Peng’s words were deleted. Her social media account was blocked. Internet searches for her name in China return only earlier posts about her sporting success. The WTA suspended its tournaments in China, but no other professional sports organisations followed suit. The men’s tour – the ATP – expressed “serious concerns”, but did not raise the possibility of moving its own tournaments out of the country. The International Tennis Federation, the sport’s governing body, also voiced concerns, but told BBC Sport it planned to continue to run its events in China because “we don’t want to punish a billion people”.

Peng, who turns 36 in January, is a three-time Olympian, yet the International Olympic Committee (IOC) says it is focused on delivering the winter Games in Beijing in February 2022 as planned. The IOC president Thomas Bach has attracted strong criticism from human rights groups after holding two video calls with Peng, subsequently saying she was doing “fine” while avoiding any mention of the alleged sexual assault.

Zhang Gaoli, who is 75 and retired from political life in 2018, hasn’t commented on the accusations, but China’s foreign ministry has dismissed them as “malicious hyping”. The likelihood he will face the sort of independent investigation the WTA has demanded is remote. High-ranking officials are occasionally brought down in anti-corruption drives and for breaches of political discipline (the former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang was given a life sentence for corruption and abuse of power in 2015). But the more common approach is to close ranks and protect the party leadership at all costs. This is especially true for someone as senior as Zhang.

China’s powerful propaganda apparatus has, however, failed to make the case disappear altogether, veering between unconvincing denials and accusing foreigners of manipulating Peng to attack China. And while the WTA so far stands alone in its decision to pull its business from China – at a cost estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of pounds – other major sports and international brands may yet find themselves considering the same choice.

“Everything has become so global now that your actions in one market are scrutinised around the world and you’re judged based on that,” Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based sports analyst and the host of the China Sports Insider podcast, told me. He cited the NBA’s handling of the 2019 controversy involving the Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who posted on social media in support of Hong Kong protesters, as a critical turning point. Morey’s message caused outrage in Beijing and is thought to have cost the NBA up to £300m as Chinese broadcasters dropped coverage of basketball games. But the organisation also drew intense criticism in the US, including from the then president, Donald Trump, who accused NBA officials of pandering to China.

“For the first time, a global audience was really looking at how these companies were acting in China,” Dreyer said. “The days when you could say different things in different markets are over, and increasingly we’re getting to the point where people are going to have to choose which market matters more.”

[see also: Why tennis star Peng Shuai’s #MeToo allegation is such a threat to China’s leaders]

Since China began opening up to foreign investment in 1978, the Communist Party has essentially been making the same bet: that the lure of market access will overcome qualms about the country’s human rights record.

“Westerners would forget,” Deng Xiaoping assured officials ahead of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Deng, who led China from 1978 to 1989, expected international sanctions, but believed that if he could restore domestic order, the economy would rebound and foreign firms would return. The bet paid off. Within a few years of the massacre – in which between 500 and 2,600 people are estimated to have died, with thousands more injured, according to a declassified US State Department cable – sanctions eased and foreign direct investment surged.

China’s rapid economic recovery after the 2008 global financial crisis reinforced Beijing’s confidence that its state-led economic model was superior to the market-driven system in the US. That conviction has only strengthened in the years since, with the country’s expanding middle class forming an increasingly valuable market for foreign brands and China predicted to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by 2028.

More recently, Xi Jinping has called the Chinese economy a “gravitational force”, and despite the intensifying US-China rivalry and deteriorating EU-China relations, the allure of China’s market remains strong. Research by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a US-based think tank, shows foreign investment in China accelerated in 2021, up more than 10 per cent on 2020. Despite the concerted action to crush civil society in Hong Kong and the allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity directed at the predominantly Muslim Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang region, the international investors keep coming. One quarter of all global foreign direct investment now goes to China.

Out in public: a video posted on a Chinese state media Twitter account appears to show Peng Shuai at a children’s tennis tournament in Beijing, 21 November 2021. Photo by Twitter/@QingQuingParis via Reuters

But China doesn’t want to be only a strong economic power. It wants to be a global cultural power and a respected international player, and that will take more than displays of strength.

Chinese officials have been pushing back against what they call “American-style democracy” in recent weeks, attempting to redefine the term to insist that China too is democratic, with its own approach to human rights and, in its case, “democracy that works”. Ahead of the Biden administration’s virtual “Summit for Democracy” in early December, China convened its own “International Forum on Democracy” in Beijing and released a white paper detailing the purported impediments to democracy and human rights that exist in the US. These include “entrenched racism,” the “tragic mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic”, and the “widening wealth gap”.

Autocracies have often tried to brand themselves as democracies – see, for instance, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) or the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) – but there is an audience for Beijing’s claims.

“While these views may not hold much ground in developed, advanced democracies like the US, many countries likely welcome China’s alternative interpretations,” said Bonny Lin, director of the China Power project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. “Given the growing number of countries that do not meet Western definitions of liberal democracy, these countries may be receptive to Chinese efforts to reinterpret what counts as democratic or acceptable forms of governance.”

Beijing has long sought to promote the merits of its own development model, which prioritises central control and state intervention, and increasing Chinese soft power and cultural influence has been a stated goal of the CCP since at least 2007. Xi repeated that ambition in 2017, calling for renewed efforts to “tell China’s stories well” and “enhance our country’s soft power”. He has urged officials to “build our country into a socialist cultural superpower”, and has spent around £7.6bn annually on external propaganda and public diplomacy, according to one estimate.

Yet there is a growing tension between the CCP’s ambitions to achieve international prestige and respect and the instinct to flatten any perceived threats to its power. “China’s leaders clearly care about the country’s global image,” said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as China director on the US National Security Council during the Obama administration. “The rub is that they care more about tightening control at home.”

The party’s response to Peng Shuai’s allegations is a case in point. Peng is one of China’s most successful athletes and a former world number one in women’s doubles. At a time when China faces a looming demographic crisis with a shrinking working-age population, worsening gender inequality and declining women’s participation in the labour force, this could have been an opportunity for China’s leadership to show that it takes women’s rights and accusations of sexual assault seriously and supports its tennis star. But the desire to protect the party and enforce political control is stronger.

“When faced with hard choices between tightening control at home or burnishing a positive image abroad, China’s leaders have opted for control,” Hass told me. “As a consequence, China’s international image, at least in the developed world, is worse now than at any point since the wake of the Tiananmen tragedy in 1989.”

Global public opinion polling bears this out. A 2021 survey of policymakers and public intellectuals in south-east Asia found that while they overwhelmingly view China as the most influential regional power, more than 60 per cent said they would prefer to align themselves with the US than China, an increase of almost 10 per cent on the previous year. Sixty-two per cent expressed anxieties about China’s assertive actions and the militarisation of the South China Sea. The Sydney-based Lowy Institute similarly found in a 2021 poll that the majority of Australians see China as more of a security threat than an economic partner, a reversal of its findings 12 months earlier. And in the institute’s power index Beijing was found to have declined in measures of cultural and diplomatic influence in the region. In the US, the proportion of Americans who view China as their country’s greatest threat has more than doubled in the past year, while negative attitudes towards China in the UK have reached record highs in the past two years.

These attitudes could translate into tough action against China. Concerns about growing Chinese military strength have prompted South Korea, Japan and the Philippines to strengthen their relationships with the US. Beijing’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy has galvanised regional groupings such as “the Quad” – comprising the US, India, Australia and Japan – whose leaders held their first in-person summit in 2021 and vowed to recommit to the partnership. The US, UK and Australia, meanwhile, announced the new Aukus security pact in September last year.

The years of China hiding its strength and biding its time, as Deng once urged, are over. In Xi’s version of the story, the country stood up under Mao Zedong, got rich under Deng, and now, under his leadership, it has become strong. He claims to be leading the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, reclaiming China’s rightful place in the world and commanding respect, instead of the humiliation it suffered at the hands of foreign powers during the final century of imperial rule. As the party enshrined in a recent high-level document: “Constant concessions will only invite more bullying and humiliation.”

But this demand for strength on all fronts and at all times could also backfire. “Tactically, China used to mix toughness and concessions masterfully to de-escalate tensions and divide the West,” writes Minxin Pei, a scholar of Chinese elite politics, in Bloomberg Opinion. “But Beijing’s toolbox now appears to include hammers only.”

Instead of tact and diplomacy, or even acknowledging Peng Shuai’s allegations, Beijing has opted to silence the athlete and threaten her supporters. International brands and sports organisations will now be watching to see whether there is a market for the WTA’s principled stance in backing Peng and moving its tournaments elsewhere. “China is the biggest single market in the world, but it’s still smaller than the rest of world,” said Mark Dreyer. “So, if it’s them or us, or if it’s China versus the world, China is going to isolate itself. As someone who’s been [in China] a long time, that would be a massive shame, but I do think that’s the direction we’re heading in.”

With uncertainty surrounding the circumstances in which Peng Shuai made her recent remarks on camera, it’s worth returning to her original post. Nowhere did she call for the Communist Party to be overthrown or express the slightest hint of opposition to its rule. She didn’t invoke the #MeToo movement or demand systemic change. She simply said she wanted to tell the truth. But that was the one thing the party couldn’t allow.

Katie Stallard will be joining the New Statesman as Senior Editor (China and Global Affairs) on 17 January

[see also: How the Chinese Communist Party is policing the past to secure its future]

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This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance