Accustomed to forcibly conveying information to domestic and foreign audiences, its propaganda machine has not yet learned how to produce a narrative that can withstand scrutiny.
Give any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gifts to send every month. Anyone can read what you share.
The Chinese government has become extremely effective in controlling the thought and speech of 1.4 billion people in the country.
But affecting the rest of the world is another matter, and Peng Shuai has properly proved it.
Chinese state media and their reporters have provided evidence after evidence that the Chinese tennis star, despite being publicly accused of sexually assaulting a powerful former deputy prime minister, is still safe.
A Beijing-controlled media claimed that it received an email from her in which she denied the allegations. Another person provided a video of Ms. Peng at the dinner. In the video, she and her companion discussed the date quite conspicuously to prove that it was recorded last weekend.
The international protests are getting louder and louder. China's clumsy response has not only failed to convince the world, but has become a textbook example of its inability to communicate with an audience that cannot be controlled by censorship and coercion.
The ruling Communist Party communicates through one-way, top-down information. It seems difficult to understand that a persuasive narrative must be supported by facts and verified by reliable independent sources.
In official comments, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs mostly avoided questions about Ms. Peng, claiming that it did not know the matter first, and then said that the topic was not within its purview. On Tuesday, spokesperson Zhao Lijian adopted a familiar strategy: questioning the motives behind reporting Ms. Peng’s allegations. "I hope certain people will stop malicious hype, let alone politicize it," he told reporters.
In recent years, China has become more mature in using the power of the Internet to promote a more positive, less critical narrative—an effort that seems to work from time to time. But in essence, the Chinese propaganda machine still believes that the best way to make the problem go away is to call the other party. It may also threaten to close access to its huge market and booming economy in order to silence companies and governments that do not purchase its product lines.
"Messages like this are meant to demonstrate power:'We told you that she is good, who else can you say?'" Marek Olberg, a researcher at the German Marshall Foundation, a research institute, wrote on Twitter. " This is not to persuade people, but to intimidate and demonstrate the power of the country."
China has an incredible history of witness. A prominent lawyer who was sentenced to prison condemned her son for fleeing the country on national television. A Hong Kong bookstore manager who was detained for selling books on the private lives of Chinese leaders said after his release that he had to make more than a dozen taped confessions to satisfy the kidnappers.
This time, the women's tennis industry didn't care and hinted that it would stop hosting events in China until it was determined that Ms. Peng was truly out of government control. The biggest names in tennis — Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Novak Djokovic, etc. — don’t seem to be afraid of losing access to the potential market of 1.4 billion tennis fans. The postponement is problematic because the Beijing Winter Olympics are only a few weeks away from the opening.
The country’s huge propaganda army has failed its supreme leader Xi Jinping’s expectations that it controls the global narrative about China. But this should not bear all the responsibility: failure is deeply rooted in the control of China's authoritarian system.
"It allows Peng Shuai to play any role, including a free look," New York-based media businessman He Ping wrote on Twitter. He went on to say that for Chinese officials in charge of crisis management, such control is routine. "But for the free world," he said, "this is more terrifying than forcing a confession."
One of the biggest gifts that Ms. Peng can't express her ideas freely is that her name is still censored on the Chinese Internet.
Rose Luqiu, assistant professor of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, said: “As long as the reports on her in China and abroad are different, she cannot speak freely.”
Although concerns about Ms. Peng's health have been expressed on Twitter and other online platforms blocked in China, the Chinese public has little knowledge of these discussions.
Later on Friday, as the hashtag #whereispengshuai gained momentum on Twitter, I couldn't find any discussion about this issue on Chinese social media. Despite this, Ms. Peng clearly attracted the attention of politically astute Chinese. I sent a message to a friend in Beijing. She usually pays attention to hot topics and uses a password to ask her if she has heard of a large-scale search for someone. "PS?" My friend guessed it with Ms. Peng's initials.
It is difficult to estimate how many Chinese people are aware of Ms. Peng’s allegations, which she detailed in a post on Chinese social media this month. Her post—named Zhang Gaoli, the former top leader of the Chinese Communist Party, as the attacker—was deleted within minutes. A Weibo social media user asked in the comments whether it is guilty to save a screenshot of Ms. Peng's post. Another Weibo user described in the comments as being too scared to share posts.
They have good reason to be afraid. Beijing has made it easier to detain or accuse online speech. Many people deleted their social media accounts because they only shared content that the reviewers deemed inappropriate, including content related to #MeToo.
China has been deeply saddened by its poor image in the mainstream Western news media, and has been talking about controlling narratives for years. Xi Jinping said that he hopes that China will be able to shape a global narrative that is compatible with its rising position in the world. "Tell the Chinese story well," he instructed. "Create a credible, lovely, and respectable image of China."
The official media suggested that Covid-19 came from American laboratories and spread unconfirmed allegations on Facebook and Twitter. China has posted thousands of videos on YouTube and other Western platforms, in which Uighurs say they are "very free" and "very happy", while the Communist Party is implementing a policy of repression against them and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
In fact, since Xi Jinping took power nine years ago, China has not been respected so much, and its narrative has not been so credible. He cracked down on relatively independent media and eliminated critical online voices in the country. He freed diplomats and nationalist youths who would rant back to any criticism or derogatory hints.
"Three things in life are inevitable: life, death, and humiliation to China," a reader commented in a recent column of mine.
Despite China’s relatively fast economic growth and relatively competent response to the pandemic, the country’s deteriorating human rights record and uncompromising international stance have not helped its image. According to data from the Pew Research Center, the negative view of China in most advanced economies in the world reached a record high last year.
China cannot effectively respond to questions about Ms. Peng because it cannot even solve the problem directly.
The subject of Ms. Peng’s sexual assault charges, Mr. Zhang was one of the most powerful officials of the Communist Party before retiring. The party regards criticizing the top leader as a direct attack on the entire organization, so it will not repeat her allegations. As a result, official media reporters who tried to argue that Ms. Peng was okay could not even mention it directly.
For Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, the accusations against Mr. Zhang have become "things." He wrote on Twitter: "I don't think Peng Shuai has been retaliated and suppressed by foreign media because of what people are talking about."
Mr. Zhang cannot even discuss online in China. Those who call him "Kimchi" because his name sounds like the name of an ancient Korean dynasty.
If China’s revolving master Hu can speak more bluntly, if the Chinese people are free to discuss Ms. Peng and her allegations, the official media may understand how to build a narrative. Instead, Mr. Hu alternated between trying to change the conversation and trying to close the conversation altogether.
"For those who really care about Peng Shuai's safety, her appearance in the past few days is enough for them to ease or eliminate most of their worries." He wrote. "But for those who aim to attack the Chinese system and boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics, no matter how many facts there are, it won't work for them."