How tennis player Peng Shuai’s disappearance is a classic case of China’s inherent insecurities

A single incident could be the spark of a revolution in a totalitarian country like China. It is this spark which has compelled Beijing to spend billions on monitoring and suppressing its population

Maj Gen Harsha Kakar November 25, 2021 09:04:44 IST
How tennis player Peng Shuai’s disappearance is a classic case of China’s inherent insecurities

China's Peng Shuai has been 'missing' since she posted a message on Chinese social media platform Weibo on 2 November accusing a former vice premier and a close confidant of Chinese president Xi Jinping of forcing her to have sex. AFP

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai has been missing since she posted a message on Chinese social media platform Weibo on 2 November accusing a former vice premier and a close confidant of Chinese president Xi Jinping of forcing her to have sex. The message was subsequently removed and discussion on the subject blocked in China’s closely monitored Weibo platform. Global pressure began to mount with world bodies and nations demanding her release and investigation into her accusations. This episode is also being used to demand a boycott of Beijing’s 2022 Winter Games scheduled for February next year.

President Joe Biden and British prime minister Boris Johnson have stated that they are considering a diplomatic boycott of the games. Canada and Australia, with poor ties with China, would follow suit. The European Union currently maintains silence but may be compelled by internal pressures. Rising global calls and threat of boycott forced China to act on Peng Shuai’s case. The editor of the Chinese government mouthpiece, The Global Times, Hu Xinjin, has taken to Twitter to push pictures and videos of Peng attending family and sports events. She is also reported to have spoken to the IOC president and conveyed her wellness.

No one has bought the Chinese story and the world is demanding further evidence. It is a case of another dissenter being pushed deep into the Chinese penal system solely because she questioned the Chinese political hierarchy, which is considered supreme in China.

In June, a Chinese blogger, Qiu Ziming, with a following of over two million on Weibo was jailed for seven months and forced to apologise for questioning Chinese casualty figures in Galwan and eight months to acknowledge them. China lost far more soldiers than it declared, but true numbers are hidden solely to save the face of Xi and the CCP. The ruling Chinese elite can never be shown as leaders in a losing situation.

Grace Meng, the wife of the Chinese former head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, who vanished into the Chinese prison system in 2018 recently held a press conference in France and accused the Chinese government of being “monsters”. Reports state that she is being protected from Chinese agents seeking to eliminate her. Meng was part of the inner circle of the CCP. Hence, Grace’s statements released little known secrets on the internal functioning of China’s elite society. She stated, “The extent of corruption in China today is extremely serious. It’s everywhere.” The fact is that while China has grown economically, most of its leaders have stashed funds abroad. Initially, Hong Kong was the destination for illegal investment, however this avenue is fast closing.

Simultaneously, demands for democracy are rising within China. Such is Chinese fear of internal dissent that China has, between 2007 and 2019, tripled its domestic security spending to more than 1.24 trillion yuan. Despite all its security controls, protests in the country are on the rise. As long as they are not organised and coordinated, Chinese authorities monitor them, but permit them to continue. Currently major causes for protests are corruption, land seizures and economic stress.

Weibo is under close scrutiny, and global social media sites, including Twitter are banned. So strong is fear of criticism that foreign journalists who adversely comment on the Chinese government or its leaders are expelled, blacklisted or banned. Further, the PLA, which swore allegiance to the country now does so to Xi Jinping and the CCP.

Externally, China monitors its students and citizens residing abroad. They are under perpetual threat and any sign of dissent is acted upon on family members back home. Chinese army personnel participating in UN peacekeeping operations are prohibited from taking family members abroad, as a form of blackmail, especially as they are in contact with their global counterparts.

Internally, China works to protect its leader’s image by every possible means. The Chinese government had in 2018 banned the release of a film, Winnie the Pooh, only because the world observed similarities between the character and Xi Jinping. Winnie the Pooh toys have disappeared from Chinese stores. In China, Xi cannot be questioned or trolled on Weibo. The last Plenary upgraded Xi to levels of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. It appears that the CCP is attempting to project him as the saviour of the country.

A similar state exists in North Korea where the government attempts to create a larger-than-life image of Kim Jong-un, its current dictator. He is being projected as a ruler with supernatural powers. He is often photographed as riding a white horse onto the top of North Korea’s most revered mountain, Mount Paektu. Kim is claimed to have the ability to control weather, was driving a car at the age of 3, and sailing competitively at the age of 9! He has been projected as a demi-God and revered by the masses, many of whom cry at the very sight of him. There are reports that in the past couple of years, this propaganda is declining.

In totalitarian states, rulers can only remain in power by spreading fear and uncertainty amongst its population and displaying themselves as their saviours. To do this, they control the media and spend huge sums on propaganda, most of which is fake. This is what Stalin, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe, Idi Amin and Muammar Gaddafi had in common and is visible presently in China and North Korea. Any rising dissent is crushed as these nations have security agencies embedded into society.

Thomas Jefferson had stated, “When governments fear the public, there is liberty. When the public fears the government, there is tyranny.” Nowhere in the globe has tyranny succeeded for perpetuity. At some stage it collapses due to internal pressures or extra high ambitions of the leader — the Soviet Union being a prime example of the first and Hitler of the second. The same would be the fate of China and North Korea in the future. A single incident could be the spark of a revolution. It is this spark which has compelled these states to spend billions on monitoring and suppressing its population. It is also this unknown spark which gives its leaders nightmares.

The author is a former Indian Army officer, strategic analyst and columnist. Views expressed are personal.

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