China adopts two faces, one-dimensional approach to Peng Shuai allegations against top former leader

Peng Shuai, a Chinese professional tennis player. (Photo courtesy: AFP)

(, Dec06’21) – The government of China has adopted a policy of two faces and one dimensional approach to the allegation that its former Deputy Premier Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted the country’s former top tennis player Peng Shuai. It has clamped down to maintain blanket silence at home, launched a blistering media attack outside the country to international reactions to the allegation and Beijing’s response to it, and targeted Peng but apparently left the former Politburo Standing committee member Zhang untouched.

The government of China disappeared and censored Peng and all information about the development immediately after she made the allegation in a Sina Weibo post on Nov 2. So, within China, it is as if the allegation does not at all exist.

However, in contrast to the blanket silence at home, China’s government controlled-media lashed out at the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) on Twitter – a platform blocked in China – accusing the organization of “putting on an exaggerated show,” and “supporting the West’s attack on Chinese system,” after it demanded answers to her allegation and prolonged disappearance, noted the Dec 3.

On Dec 2, the WTA announced an immediate suspension of all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, over Beijing’s silencing of Peng’s sexual assault allegations.

But despite the state media firestorm on Twitter, Chinese social media platforms remained calm and quiet, with no sight of the nationalist rage that would usually engulf parties that are deemed to have “offended China,” the report noted.

“China’s external propaganda on this matter is like a paper box that cannot hold water in front of its own people,” Xiao Qiang, editor-in-chief of China Digital Times, a US-based news website tracking censorship in China, has said.

“We could talk here about a two-pronged strategy, about how China has enforced complete silence at home while pushing a narrative externally about meddling journalists and the politicizing of sport. But to call it a strategy at all suggests a sophistication that is not really there,” David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, has said.

Zhang Gaoli, Former Vice Premier of the People’s Republic of China. (Photo courtesy: AP)

China’s state-run Global Times “editorial”, posted on Twitter in English, accused the WTA of “expanding its influence in a speculative way, bringing politics into women’s tennis deeply, setting a bad example for the entire sporting world.”

Tellingly, it did not mention what triggered the WTA’s decision to pull out of China in the first place.

What is more the “editorial” wasn’t posted on the newspaper’s Chinese-language social media accounts, and only appeared on its English-language website late on Dec 2 night. But even then, it was hidden from the homepage, a far cry from how editorials are usually displayed, the report noted.

In another English-language article, the Global Times said the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA) had expressed “indignation and firm opposition” to the WTA’s decision. However, the CTA’s response was not reported by Chinese language media, nor was it posted on the association’s own website, the report noted.

Also, at a news conference on Dec 2, responding to a question about the WTA’s withdrawal, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said “China has always been firmly opposed to any act that politicizes sports.” But even that exchange was deleted from the official transcript of the Q&A on the ministry’s website, the report pointed out.

As vice premier Zhang, 75, served on the party’s seven-person Politburo Standing Committee – the country’s supreme leadership body – alongside Xi from 2012 to 2017.

The lengths Beijing has gone to hide its anger toward the WTA from the Chinese public shows just how serious and sensitive the scandal is in the eyes of the ruling Communist Party – especially before its twice-a-decade leadership reshuffle next fall, when President Xi Jinping is expected to seek a third term in power – the report noted.

In the early hours of Dec 2, some Weibo users were able to voice support for the decision on the WTA’s official Weibo account, under its old posts.

“WTA has a strong spine!” one was quoted as having commented. “Why hasn’t this man been arrested. He really has super strong backing. It’s absurd,” the comment was stated to have continued, apparently referencing Zhang.


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