China watchers, #MeToo activists and international athletes have coalesced around the case of Peng Shuai, the tennis star who alleged sexual impropriety against a former Chinese cabinet member, Zhang Gaoli. Starkly different reactions to the case among Chinese and international audiences have encapsulated a growing Sino-Western divide, and the seemingly impossible challenge of communications that this presents for the Chinese party-state.

For Western observers, Peng’s complaint has been treated primarily as a case of historic sexual abuse. Zhang is seen as an extremely powerful man who abused his position by courting an extramarital relationship with Peng, against her will initially. Western activists and sporting figures took this narrative at face value, demanding that the Chinese government conduct an independent investigation and ensure Peng’s wellbeing. As her whereabouts remained unclear, the ethical and judicial concerns of international observers were embodied in the Twitter hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.

In China, strict media censorship has stopped such ideas being promulgated. Conversations I have had with people here reveal a very different understanding of Peng’s claims. In their view, Peng chose to use the social media platform Weibo not to allege assault, but as an outlet for her lovesick frustrations. Instead of a #MeToo case alleging sexual assault, Peng’s post is interpreted more as an emotional cry for help by someone who has been ditched by their former lover.

And a relationship like that which existed between Peng and Zhang, while understood to be morally questionable, is not considered unusual in Chinese culture. Rather, it is a part of a lust-power transaction that is so normalised it is not even considered scandalous. (Mao, the founder of China’s current ruling party, was a notorious womaniser and even an alleged paedophile.) As news of Peng’s complaint spread to international outlets, these nuances of language and culture were lost, resulting in profound differences of understanding.

Another response that I have heard from Chinese contacts is that Peng’s case is not primarily about love or abuse, but politics. In their view, Peng became a pawn in a political campaign against the political faction that Zhang belongs to, that of China’s former leader Jiang Zemin. Proponents of this argument point to the timing of Peng’s post, which concerned events many years ago, but was suddenly published just days before a major political meeting at the start of a critical year for incumbent leader Xi Jinping.

In China, such timing can never be coincidental, people argue, because “everything is political”. Furthermore, Peng’s post was not censored within minutes, as is typical, but reportedly stayed up for around half an hour, and contained sensitive keywords that would usually prevent a post even being published in the first place. The only possibility, some people believe, is that censors must have ordered Weibo to make an exception, so that Peng’s politically-charged complaint could be posted.

Personally, I am not convinced that there was a political conspiracy behind Peng’s post. Xi has already consolidated his power to a level seen by no PRC leader since Mao. And while there always remains a need for strongmen leaders like Xi and Mao to continue demonstrating their power over rivals, there must surely be more efficient alternatives to using the proxy of a female tennis star.

That said, it is famously difficult to know what happens behind the Chinese political curtain, and Jiang’s Shanghai faction is still believed to be a significant political force. Powerful leaders like Xi are powerful precisely because they do not sit back and relax but continue to assert their power, sometimes in ways that may seem odd and unorthodox to the outside world.

Ultimately, it is impossible to know what really motivated Peng’s post and the actors involved. In making this analysis, I do not wish to undermine the seriousness of her claims; we can only hope that the allegations are taken seriously and investigated such that Peng may eventually find some closure. But too many facts remain unknown, and the unique local context in China makes it difficult to take her Weibo post completely at face value.

Failure to manage an international PR crisis

The way in which this crisis unfolded has offered a fascinating insight into the machinations of Chinese bureaucracy at the highest levels. It was revealing that China’s foreign ministry responded to questions about Peng Shuai by saying that it was “not a foreign affairs matter”. Rather, it was foreign-facing propaganda organs like CGTN which were the only visible parts of the bureaucracy attempting to deal with the crisis.

This suggests that the Chinese government essentially viewed the backlash to Peng Shuai’s treatment as a non-domestic publicity crisis to be resolved (it hoped) through the use of foreign-facing press and social media. Sadly, for Beijing at least, this approach appears to have failed, spectacularly. Unable to simply censor discussion of the matter, as it can domestically, China’s propaganda apparatus resorted to a mix of bizarre and counter-productive actions.

First, there was the email purported to be sent by Peng to WTA chairman Steve Simon that was somehow obtained and shared on Twitter by CGTN, China’s international propaganda outlet. Then, a series of spooky stage-managed images of Peng making silent public appearances were posted by Hu Xijin, editor of the state-owned Global Times tabloid. Meanwhile, foreign journalists in Beijing were asked to stop mentioning the Peng affair at foreign ministry press conferences, and the scandal remained censored inside China, indicating very clearly just how sensitive it is for the government.

Before long, it became clear that these measures had been orchestrated very badly, since they had only resulted in even greater international concern for Peng Shuai. Things had gone so badly, in fact, that a usually pro-China Twitter user and columnist for CGTN wrote on Russian state media that the purported Peng email had been “not convincing at all”. Tom Fowdy was subsequently informed he would never again write for CGTN, according to a statement he posted on Weibo.

In Fowdy’s view, the CGTN tweet about Peng was a “botched public relations effort” that revealed “a wider and much more obvious fact: China is bad, if not abysmal, at public relations and communications.” As he explained, China’s media system often performs poorly internationally because of its structural rigidity, its non-commercial nature and its lack of experienced journalists (as distinct from propagandists). To some degree, I sympathise with this logic.

But there is another, more fundamental factor behind China’s inability to manage its international PR, which the Peng Shuai affair has made extremely clear: the seemingly irreconcilable tension that exists between Beijing’s domestic and foreign priorities. On the one hand, Beijing seeks to maintain social and political stability within its borders through censorship and propaganda. On the other hand, the Chinese government must try to cultivate a favourable international image by engaging with a liberal media landscape that it does not control.

Not surprisingly, it is the former task of maintaining domestic stability that must always be the greater priority for the party-state. This results in situations like the Peng Shuai case, where internal order is prioritised, and external PR becomes an exercise in damage control and crisis management, rather than positive image cultivation.

There are some other interesting details about the way in which Beijing handled the Peng affair. Rather than address the issue through an official spokesperson, Beijing opted to use the international social media account of its international broadcaster, CGTN. The peculiar tweet showing Peng’s purported email was posted by CGTN in the early hours of Thursday 18 November, Beijing time. This suggests that staffers had been working late into the night, likely because the bureaucracy was in panic mode and sought to quickly quell yet another weekend of negative Western reporting on the case.

The clumsy way the purported email was written suggests that no one with an understanding of Western media was consulted. In fact, it is likely that very few people were consulted on the tweet, due to the politically sensitive (and also time-sensitive) nature of the case. Many have remarked on the contrast in tone to Peng’s Weibo post and the laughable opening line, “Hello this is Peng Shuai”. A contact at CGTN told me it was unthinkable that a private “email” by Peng could somehow find its way to CGTN’s social media team, so strange in fact that no one internally has dared to talk about it.

Case closed or more to come?

A month on from her sensational post, the Peng Shuai scandal now increasingly feels like yesterday’s news. Yet it also feels unresolved. For observers of Chinese politics, the more significant fate now is not Peng’s but that of Zhang Gaoli and the Jiang faction that he is associated with. But given the terrible international optics that this affair has generated so far, it seems unlikely that there will be much public scrutiny of Zhang.

Though retired, Zhang’s status as a former cabinet-level official means that any indictment of him would also reflect terribly on the party-state institutions that appointed him to high office. And a show trial may simply not be necessary by this point; with Peng’s post, enough damage has already been done to Zhang’s name. If there was indeed a political conspiracy behind Peng’s post, then the initiators may well have concluded that the ensuing international media storm has been a cost worth incurring. But I am sceptical about this cost-benefit analysis.

As China’s party-state under Xi has become stronger domestically, its international image has suffered more and more. This, arguably, is the inverse of what happened under Xi’s predecessors, Hu Jintao and to a lesser extent Jiang Zemin, when the party state became somewhat weaker internally while improving its reputation and relations externally.

And the regularity of ‘bad China stories’ in the international press is something that irks the senior leadership in Beijing, unsure of what to do about its image problem but sure about the need to something, anything. The steady flow of bad press has resulted in fraught relations between the Chinese government and foreign journalists, many of whom have been effectively expelled from the country in recent years.

At the centre of China’s recent reputational challenges are its state media organs, and CGTN (née CCTV) in particular. They are tasked with leading the vanguard for the Chinese national brand overseas, “to tell a good China story”, in Xi’s oft-quoted diktat. But this hasn’t exactly gone to plan.

For one thing, the Peng case isn’t even the first time this year that CGTN has been suspected of fabricating news content. In August, it was one of several Chinese propaganda outlets that published reports citing a fake Swiss expert called Wilson Edwards, who was purported to have criticised the WHO’s efforts to trace the origins of COVID-19. This prompted the Swiss embassy in China to request such fabricated reports be retracted.

The Peng case is also just the latest occurrence of CGTN airing staged public appearances. Its programming was temporarily banned by the UK regulator Ofcom earlier this year, after the station was found to have aired forced statements on British satellite TV. And CGTN’s woes are not just overseas but also in China, where one of its own journalists, the Australian news anchor Cheng Lei, has been in detention for over a year on national security grounds.

All of these apparent setbacks may be explained by the logic of China’s government prioritising domestic goals over its international appearance. Beijing wants and tries to take a “China-first” approach to such crises, even when they blow up into international scandals. Yet the awkward reality is that such an approach is highly unlikely to succeed in world that is, for now at least, not very Chinese.

As China becomes more global in its ambitions and the importance of its international image grows exponentially, then its current playbook becomes increasingly untenable. And as long as this approach persists, mishandled PR crises like the Peng Shuai case will continue to leave a bad impression on the global audience that CGTN and the Chinese government so covets.

Header image credit: The Straits Times.