Why Peng Shuai is frustrating China’s propaganda machine

The Chinese government is extremely effective at controlling what the country’s 1.4 billion people think and say.

But influencing the rest of the world is a different matter, as Peng Shuai aptly pointed out.

Chinese state media and their journalists have presented one piece of evidence after another to prove that the Chinese star tennis player was safe and sound despite her public allegations of sexual assault against a powerful former vice-premier.

A Beijing-controlled outlet claimed it had received it an email she wrote in which she denied the allegations. Another offered a video of Ms. Peng at a dinner where she and her companions discussed the date in a rather noticeable manner, to prove that it was taped last weekend.

The international outcry only grew louder. Rather than convincing the world, China’s awkward response has become a textbook example of its inability to communicate with an audience it cannot control through censorship and coercion.

The ruling Communist Party communicates through top-down, one-way messages. It seems difficult to understand that compelling narratives need to be backed by facts and verified by credible, independent sources.

In its official comments, China’s Foreign Ministry largely dodged questions about Ms. Peng, initially claiming it was ignorant of the matter and then claiming that the issue was outside of its remit. On Tuesday, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman, relied on a familiar tactic: he questioned the motives behind reporting Ms. Peng’s allegations. “I hope certain people stop the vicious hype, let alone politicize it,” he told reporters.

China has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years when it comes to harnessing the power of the internet to drive a more positive, less critical narrative – an attempt that seems to work from time to time. But at its core, China’s propaganda machine still believes that the best way to make problems go away is to shout down the other side. It can also threaten to bar access to its huge market and booming economy in an attempt to silence companies and governments that won’t buy its line.

“Messages like this are intended as a show of force: ‘We tell you that she is fine, and who are you to say something else?'” Mareike Ohlberg, scholarship holder of the German Marshall Fund, wrote on twitter. “It is not intended to convince people, but to intimidate them and demonstrate the power of the state.”

China has a history of less than credible evidence. A prominent lawyer arrested denounced her son on state television for fleeing the country. A Hong Kong bookstore manager detained for selling books about the personal lives of Chinese leaders said after his release that he would have to make a dozen taped confessions before his kidnappers were satisfied.

This time around, the world of women’s tennis has not played along and has proposed that events in China be stopped until it is certain that Ms. Peng is genuinely free from government control. The biggest names in tennis – Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, and Novak Djokovic, among others – also don’t seem afraid of losing access to a potential market of 1.4 billion tennis fans. The pushback is problematic because the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing are only a few weeks away from the opening.

The country’s vast army of propagandists has failed to meet its top leader Xi Jinping’s expectations of taking control of the global narrative about China. But it shouldn’t take all of the blame: the failure is ingrained in the controlling nature of China’s authoritarian system.

“It can get Peng Shuai to play any role, including a show of freedom,” said Pin Ho, a New York-based media entrepreneur, wrote on twitter. Such checks are routine for Chinese officials in charge of crisis management. “But for the free world,” he said, “it’s even more frightening than forced confessions.”

One of the greatest freebies Ms. Peng can’t freely say is that her name is censored on the Chinese internet.

“As long as there is different coverage of her inside and outside of China, she doesn’t speak freely,” said Rose Luqiu, assistant professor of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Although concerns for Ms. Peng’s well-being have been voiced on Twitter and other online platforms blocked in China, the Chinese public is little aware of the discussions.

Late on Friday, when the momentum of the hashtag #whereispengshuai was building on Twitter, I couldn’t find any discussion on the issue on Chinese social media. Still, Ms. Peng had clearly caught the attention of the politically vigilant Chinese. I wrote a message to a friend in Beijing who was usually informed about hot topics and asked generally, in cipher, if she had heard of a huge campaign to find someone. “PS?” guessed the friend with Mrs. Peng’s initials.

It is difficult to estimate how many Chinese have heard of Ms. Peng’s allegation, which she detailed in a post on Chinese social media this month. Her post, in which Zhang Gaoli, a former top Communist Party leader, was named as her attacker, was deleted within minutes. A Weibo social media user asked in a comment whether saving a screenshot of Ms. Peng’s post was burdensome. Another Weibo user described in a comment that he was too scared to share the post.

You have good reasons to be afraid. Beijing has made it easier to arrest or prosecute people for what they say online. Many people have their social media accounts deleted because they simply share content that the censors deem inappropriate, including #MeToo-related content.

Embittered by its poor image in the western mainstream news media, China has been talking about taking control of the narrative for years. Mr. Xi said he hoped the country would have the ability to create a global narrative that is consistent with its rising status in the world. “Tell the China story well,” he instructed. “Create a believable, lovable and respectable image of China.”

Official media have suggested that Covid-19 emerged from a laboratory in the United States and spread the unproven allegation on Facebook and Twitter. China posted thousands of videos on YouTube and other Western platforms saying Uyghurs said they were “very free” and “very happy” while the Communist Party conducted repressive policies against them and other Muslim ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region.

In reality, China has been less respected and its narratives have become less credible since Mr. Xi took power nine years ago. He went against relatively independent media and eliminated critical online voices in the country. He unleashed diplomats and nationalist youth who shouted back any hint of criticism or disparagement.

“There are three things that are inevitable in life: the life, death and humiliation of China,” commented a reader on one of my last columns.

Despite China’s relatively rapid economic growth and relatively competent response to the pandemic, the country’s deteriorating human rights record and uncompromising international stance are not adding to its image. Negative views of China in the vast majority of the world’s advanced economies peaked last year, according to the Pew Research Center.

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

The subject of Ms. Peng’s sexual assault allegations, Mr. Zhang, was one of the most powerful Communist Party officials before he retired. The party sees the criticism of a top leader as a direct attack on the entire organization, so it will not repeat its accusation. As a result, state media journalists who argue that Ms. Peng is fine cannot even rely on it directly.

For Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, the allegation against Mr. Zhang has become “the thing.” “I don’t think Peng Shuai received retaliation and repression that foreign media speculated about for what people were talking about,” he said wrote on twitter.

Mr. Zhang cannot even be talked about online in China. Those who call him “Kimchi” because his first name sounds like the name of an ancient Korean dynasty.

If Mr. Hu, China’s spin master, could speak more clearly and the Chinese people were free to discuss Ms. Peng and her allegations, the official media could understand how to create a narrative. Instead, Mr. Hu alternates between trying to change the conversation and trying to end it completely.

“For those who really care about the safety of Peng Shuai, their appearances during these days will be enough to ease them or remove most of their worries,” he wrote. “But for those who attack China’s system and want to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics, facts, no matter how many, don’t work.”

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