Foreign Policy

Peng Shuai and the CCP’s Clumsy Propaganda Effort

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Authorities scramble to cover up Peng Shuai’s #MeToo accusations, the public prepares for a winter of possible food shortages, and another Western CEO finds himself apologizing to the Communist Party.

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The IOC Finds Peng Shuai Inconvenient

A series of crude propaganda efforts centered on the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who accused former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) senior leader Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault in a short-lived post on Weibo a few weeks ago, has drawn global attention to her case. Peng disappeared after her original statement, made more than two weeks ago, was deleted by censors within 30 minutes but in that time had already spread widely on the Chinese internet. Last week, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) issued a public statement, backed by prominent tennis players, about her case.

China’s Foreign Ministry claimed to be unaware of the situation on Friday but has now switched to accusing others of politicizing it. The main propaganda campaign was run through state- or party-connected media entities. The first and clumsiest effort was a supposed letter from Peng to the WTA head, issued through the Chinese state TV channel CGTN’s Twitter account.

That was followed by an increasingly creepy series of pictures and videos posted on the Twitter account of Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, a party-owned nationalist tabloid. One of them showed the 35-year-old Peng, whom Hu also referred to as a “girl” with a “sunny smile,” posing with cuddly toys. (I used to work for the Global Times’ English-language edition and know Hu a little.)

As CCP influence expert Mareike Ohlberg pointed out, the crudeness and obviousness of the propaganda was in itself an exertion of power. This is a strategy commonly deployed against dissidents, who are, for example, forced to write letters to family claiming they are fine and grateful to the party. CGTN, the TV station, also has a record of broadcasting forced confessions.

Peng reportedly told the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that she was “safe”—on a call with Chinese tennis officials also on the line. A clear split has emerged between the WTA, which is still pushing for Peng to be able to speak freely, and the IOC, which seems determined to sweep the whole affair under the carpet and ensure a smooth launch for the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. Human Rights Watch and other groups have accused the IOC of becoming a vehicle for Chinese propaganda.

The IOC has worked closely with Chinese officials, including Zhang Gaoli himself, and has a long history of intimate ties to authoritarian regimes, especially when it comes to forced displacement and the silencing of activists. The relationship goes both ways: Beijing spent years, for instance, cultivating the Olympics fixer and powerful businessman Mario Vázquez Raña in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The IOC, and Beijing, badly want to avoid athletic boycotts of the upcoming Winter Games, which are set to begin in early February. There have long been calls for a boycott, due to Beijing’s continued human rights abuses in Xinjiang and crackdowns across the country. The United States seems very likely to engage in a diplomatic boycott, a relatively weak option where athletes attend but government personnel do not. (State Department sources say this was already being proposed inside the administration months ago, before Peng’s case.)

But why has Peng’s case raised so much ire compared with, for instance, the imprisonment of journalists or Uyghur intellectuals? Celebrity is the main reason, of course. Peng was not particularly famous in the West, unless you were a doubles fan—but her contemporaries who spoke out, including Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, are. And because of the upcoming Olympics, the protests by the WTA took on an extra weight that Beijing felt it had to respond to, prompting the wave of clumsy propaganda.

The #MeToo specifics also played a role. Many Westerners can process the silencing and oppression of a woman by her abusers more easily than they can understand what it’s like to be a jailed journalist or imprisoned ethnic minority. So did Peng’s relative wealth and standing; the realization that if it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone is part of why the case has struck home.

It’s also worth remembering that Peng is not an experienced dissident. She simply posted about her alleged abuser; we don’t know what her political views are otherwise, and she may well not want to be turned into an anti-party crusader. Fighting for her ability to speak shouldn’t mean speaking for her.

And even as state media claims she’s fine in its foreign social media channels, all mention of her case and her accusations remain censored within Chinese media and social media itself.

Journalistic bribery. A court case gives useful insight into one of the most common business practices in Chinese journalism: pay to play. A midlevel employee of People’s Daily, the CCP’s official newspaper, was sentenced to 13 years in jail for taking 3 million yuan ($469,000) in bribes from a housing director in Sanya City, Hainan—a tourist resort on China’s southernmost island—to promote his department’s work on the front page of People’s Daily. A People’s Daily front-page article would provide a big boost for the political careers of everyone involved.

While it rarely involves this much money, bribery of journalists, especially at state media, is common in China. Fallen leader Bo Xilai’s staff in Chongqing, for instance, routinely bribed media for favorable coverage. Even at routine provincial press conferences, journalists would have “red envelopes” of cash put under their seats for simply attending, while state TV executives took large bribes for prominent stories.

Taiwan tantrums. While the mood around Taiwan has calmed slightly in the last few weeks, Chinese officials and media continue a hysterical chorus around the island and its politicians. The latest is a stream of articles and threats following U.S. President Joe Biden’s invitation for Taiwan to his Summit for Democracy next month. The United States carefully issued a “participant list” that didn’t explicitly endorse Taiwan’s statehood—only to have Chinese journalists describe it as listed as a country anyway.

This is all very petty, but the more uncomfortable and insular the politics on the mainland get, the more everyone from journalists to Foreign Ministry spokespeople feel the need to beat up on Taiwan to prove their own loyalty. An incidental victim has been Lithuania, currently a subject of rhetorical fury for upgrading the status of Taiwan’s de facto embassy there.

Food supply. The government has called for efforts to increase food production over the winter and spring in order to account for possible extreme weather events, an announcement that is likely to cause more public worries about food. Food supply is already a tense issue, given both official warnings to store up for the winter in case of further COVID-19 lockdowns and rumors of war with Taiwan that sparked panic buying. The government monitors agriculture closely, but it’s also a highly corrupt sector, and a spate of recent cases has exposed that reserve grain figures, for instance, may be unreliable after officials sold off part of the supply.

Quantum computing sanctions. The Biden administration has blacklisted another dozen Chinese firms for their ties to the military, specifically over quantum computing efforts. Quantum computing is a radical field that could produce machines far faster than conventional computers and capable of solving some previously unsolvable problems, as well as shaking up existing cryptography. China has invested heavily in the field, although the benefits are all largely theoretical at this point, since current quantum computers are very tiny and their utility highly disputed.

Such blacklists are a regular feature of the U.S.-China relationship, although they became more regularly used under former President Donald Trump. I’m told by insiders that the Biden administration has been sitting on these and other possible sanctions for a while, but it held off until after COP26 and the summit between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China blocks shipping data. China has thrown another wrench into the already clogged machinery of global commerce. Chinese firms are refusing to provide the data they usually supply through automatic identification systems (standard trackers that every ship is fitted with). The number of reports from China has dropped by 90 percent in the last three weeks. This seems to be an attempt to comply with China’s data law, which came into force on Nov. 1 and prevents information from being sent to foreign services unless the Chinese government gives permission—but it’s making it even harder to keep track of where ships, and goods, are.

It may be that this is a temporary hiccup and that the authorities will let firms send the information, a critical part of the global shipping system, again. But paranoia about data security has recently heightened inside China, especially as foreign analysts have used Chinese data to show forced sterilization in Xinjiang or to investigate the origins of COVID-19. Several researchers have told me they’ve seen previously open sources, from local newspapers to government reports to health databases, disappear in the last year.

Corporate apologies. Jamie Dimon is the latest Western executive to have to undergo a grueling apology tour to the CCP. Speaking at a Boston event, the JPMorgan Chase CEO made a crack about the company outliving the CCP that he’s now frantically trying to walk back. Dimon has now apologized twice but is likely to have to do so a lot more, especially after being indirectly threatened by Chinese state media. Western financial firms are heavily invested in China, so America’s corporate leaders are extremely sensitive to the CCP’s political demands.

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