China’s propaganda machine is not known for its nuance. Take, for instance, a digitally altered image tweeted out last year by a fiery diplomat depicting an Australian soldier holding a bloodstained knife to a child’s throat. Or the thousands of videos of Uyghurs denying abuses against their communities, many of which feature identical phrases and structures.
Now, the mobilization of the state communications apparatus in response to the growing global attention to Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai’s disappearance from public life is again offering a case study on Beijing’s brash, belligerent, and often ham-fisted messaging style.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping told senior party officials this year that they must work to present a “credible, loveable, and respectable China.” The heavily managed state response to international demands for confirmation of Peng’s wellbeing has presented anything but a “loveable” image—though not for the lack of trying.
Peng, a three-time Olympian and two-time Grand Slam winner, had taken to Weibo on Nov. 2 to post detailed allegations of sexual assault by Zhang Gaoli, a 75-year-old former vice premier. As the country’s censors worked to scrub any mention of the explosive accusations, Peng also vanished from public life.
International concern over Peng’s fate began to rapidly snowball after the World Tennis Association issued a statement of support for her, Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic spoke about her disappearance, and Japanese tennis pro Naomi Osaka tweeted to ask #WhereIsPengShuai. In response, Chinese state media last week began issuing a series of messages aiming to show that Peng is fine.
On Nov. 18, CGTN, the international arm of state propaganda broadcaster CCTV, tweeted a screenshot of an email that it claimed had been written by Peng. But the email’s wording and tone were decidedly more “creepy and eerie” than reassuring, said Mareike Ohlberg, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Asia program.
Nor were others convinced by the veracity or credibility of Peng’s purported email. The WTA’s CEO Steve Simon openly questioned whether “Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her.”
It’s impossible to know what CGTN and the senior officials, who would presumably have had to green-light something as sensitive as this, expected to achieve with the weird email tweet. Did they think it would put the matter to rest? Or did they intend it as a projection of state power?
For Ohlberg, CGTN’s tweet displays a “fusion of incompetence and authoritarian hubris in China’s official messaging.”
Several photos were posted to Peng’s WeChat account on Nov. 19, showing her at home surrounded by dozens of stuffed animals, hanging out with a fluffy cat. These supposed scenes of idyllic domestic bliss were quickly re-shared on Twitter by state-affiliated journalists including Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the state tabloid Global Times, who vouched for their “authenticity” and said he independently confirmed that they indeed show Peng’s current state.
Assuming that some level of official stage managing is at play behind the photos being shared on Peng’s social media account, it’s worth pondering the choice of “cutesy” photos of stuffed animals to depict a champion tennis player whose bombshell allegations against a senior official potentially threaten the party’s iron grip on power.
“The fact that she made a claim about rape and sexual violence, and these are the images that are first shown…she is rendered into this harmless, very conventionally gendered woman, where she’s surrounded by these fluffy objects and this cat,” said Grace Ting, assistant professor of gender studies at the University of Hong Kong.
It’s possible to read the image as an attempt to separate Peng from her allegation, Ting added. “This is not an image of a survivor of sexual violence, it’s an image of an attractive woman playing with toys at home,” she said.
That would mirror an attribute of the state messaging, which shows Peng in various situations, but is silent on the allegation that prompted the concern that in turn prompted these messages—which are not to be found on the Chinese internet.
To Ohlberg, the attempt to portray a “cutesy” Peng is as creepy as the purported email given its similarity in method to other “proof of life” photos and videos to ascertain the wellbeing of persecuted individuals like Uyghurs and dissidents.
Hours after retweeting Peng’s photos, Hu shared two videos that he said he had “acquired.” One video shows a woman who appears to be Peng in a restaurant, nodding as two companions discuss whether “tomorrow” is Nov. 20 or Nov. 21. On Nov. 21, Hu shared two more videos: one showing Peng at a tennis tournament, and another clip showing a beaming Peng signing tennis balls.
Hu’s role in sharing photos and videos suggests that there may have been a “transfer of responsibility” in spreading Beijing’s messaging around Peng from CGTN, the overseas arm of state broadcaster CCTV, to the Global Times editor, said Kai Clark, an honors student researching Global Times at the Australian National University.
“CGTN is still quite new to being provocative online” and perhaps didn’t anticipate the international mobilization and backlash to the initial email screenshot, Clark added, while Global Times has long mastered a blunt and aggressive form of discourse as a way of telling China’s story. And it has an added advantage over CGTN: it’s seen as less official than the predominant state broadcaster, and can push the boundaries of belligerence without being taken overly seriously.
On Sunday (Nov. 21), Peng appeared in a 30-minute live video call with International Olympic Committee officials, smiling against a backdrop of plush toys. The IOC subsequently issued a statement saying Peng wanted to “have her privacy respected at this time,” prompting a backlash against the organization for “doing the Chinese government’s propaganda” as the Beijing Winter Olympics looms.
Authoritarian propaganda is known for its tendency to obscure the truth with noise. In that vein, the Global Times’ work in steering the Peng narrative allows the party to participate in the discussion around #WhereIsPengShuai by essentially saying “here she is”—even though the photos and the videos don’t address the concerns over her rights and freedoms at the heart of that question. In response, individuals who have spoken out for Peng are now switching to the hashtag #FreePengShuai.