The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Peng Shuai’s new statements fit a pattern in China. The world mustn’t fall for it.

Peng Shuai, pictured at the China Open in 2017, denies she made allegations of sexual assault against a top Chinese official. (Andy Wong/AP)

Suzanne Nossel is chief executive of PEN America and author of “Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All.” James Tager is the organization’s director of research.

The latest statements from Peng Shuai, the tennis star who disappeared after accusing one of China’s most powerful men of sexual assault, have left the world wondering what to make of the athlete’s explosive claims. In an interview this past Sunday, Peng appeared to retract her earlier allegations of abuse. Yet her new message should not be taken at face value. Given the Chinese government’s well-documented history of forcing dissidents and activists to record videos in which they publicly deny their mistreatment, there is reason to believe that Peng is still not speaking freely.

In November, Peng published an open letter on Chinese social media accusing Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her to have sex. Censors quickly scrubbed her post and related discussions, and Peng disappeared from public life for weeks. After tennis stars and international organizations voiced concern, Chinese state media published pictures of a purported email from Peng saying “everything is fine,” and she reportedly twice spoke with the International Olympic Committee via videos that have not been released.

In Sunday’s interview with the Singaporean newspaper Lianhe Zaobao — which in recent times has been known for pro-Beijing coverage — Peng denied she had alleged a sexual assault.

Peng also claimed that she had written to the Women’s Tennis Association, “completely of my own will,” to withdraw her allegations. The WTA had canceled competitive play in China in the wake of Peng’s disappearance. Peng said in this weekend’s interview, “I have always been very free,” waving away concerns that she is being monitored by state intelligence services.

In evaluating this about-face, it is essential to understand that Chinese authorities regularly employ coerced appearances of high-profile dissidents and those close to them to quiet international outrage over the maltreatment of dissenters. This practice has expanded under President Xi Jinping’s rule, with a new wave of televised “confession videos” from human rights activists or targeted dissidents. The trend is so pronounced that some Chinese activists have taken to making preemptive “if I lose my freedom” videos, disowning any future “confessions” they might be forced to make.

A prime example: when Chinese security agents disappeared five Hong Kong-based booksellers known for selling books that cast unflattering light on top Chinese Communist Party officials. After public outcry, all five appeared in televised confession videos “admitting” to various crimes. One bookseller, Lam Wing-kee, now lives in Taiwan; he testified later that his “confession” was a pre-written script handed to him by authorities.

Another bookseller, Gui Minhai, was kidnapped from Thailand and is serving a 10-year sentence in China on pretextual charges. During one of Gui’s purported confession videos, his shirt spontaneously changes color, revealing that his “confession” took more than one take. In later images, Gui appears to be missing a tooth, hinting at abuse in custody. Gui is a Swedish citizen, but Chinese officials have made the implausible claim that he disowned his Swedish citizenship while being held by Beijing. He claims in more than one video that he wants the Swedes to stop advocating on his behalf.

In 2017, Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo died in Chinese custody from liver cancer after the government denied him the ability to travel for medical treatment. After his exploitatively stage-managed burial by sea, his widow, Liu Xia, disappeared from public view. Journalists and diplomats who tried to visit her home were turned away by state security services. Upon a swell of public outrage, a short video of Liu Xia appeared on YouTube — a platform that is blocked in China — claiming she had voluntarily withdrawn to have “time to mourn.” We at PEN America concluded then that the video “fits squarely within the pattern of Chinese propaganda videos in which individuals give coerced statements that promote the party narrative.” Authorities kept Liu Xia under house arrest until July 2018.

The non-governmental organization Safeguard Defenders analyzed 45 different confession videos released between 2013 and 2018, concluding that: “China’s televised confessions are routinely forced and extracted through threats, torture, and fear; that police routinely dictate and direct the confessions; and that there is strong evidence that in certain cases they are used as tools of propaganda for both domestic audiences and as part of China’s foreign policy.” Part of this foreign policy objective is to persuade the international community that nothing warrants their interference.

Peng’s disclaiming of her previous statement fits precisely into this pattern.

For now, the WTA has taken the strongest action to date by suspending competitive tennis in China — while the IOC has appeared to play directly into the CCP’s ham-handed attempt at censorship, an embarrassing bow to the host of the Winter Olympics.

Governments and international sport organizations must not be fooled. China has played this propaganda card before. Human rights defenders, governments and the WTA are right to demand China answer for Peng’s safety and liberty. Anything less is naive to the point of negligence.

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