The sexual assault accusation of the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai in late 2021 and her subsequent disappearance captivated the international community in a case unexpectedly common. What caught them by surprise was not just the rare instance of someone publicly speaking out about sexual abuse, but rather the alleged perpetrator of this abuse: the high-ranking politician and former Chinese Vice President Zhang Gaoli.
With the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) being known for draconian measures against critics of its ideology, consequences followed quickly: after her statement was censored, she disappeared from public life. The tennis star reappeared weeks later in a mysterious Zoom call with the International Olympic Committee and has laid low ever since. She later claimed that her statement was not only severely misinterpreted, but also denied any accusations of sexual abuse.
But this is not a unique case. Ai Weiwei, an artist famously known for his human rights activism, was arrested at Beijing Airport on the grounds of alleged tax evasion. After 81 days in a secret detention facility, he was eventually released into heavily surveilled house arrest. Upon the return of his passport in 2015, Ai Weiwei left the country for exile in Europe. In 2020, another high-profile individual disappeared off the map: Jack Ma, billionaire and founder of the influential e-commerce company Alibaba went missing for several months after speaking out against the Chinese financial system. Just as Peng Shuai, he later returned, but has kept a low profile ever since.
These are just a few cases that are connected to the increased crackdown on public opposition within China visible in the last decade. The CCP’s increasingly authoritarian system oppresses free speech and access to information, while spreading the political ideology of the Communist Party. This is particularly noticeable since the rise of the current Chinese president Xi Jinping.
Controlling China’s celebrities seems to be just another means through which the state can achieve these goals. But their large platforms also pose a threat to the pursuit of the CCP’s agenda. Rhetoric such as abuse allegations are considered dangerous to the CCP worldview since they spread faster than they can be censored by state-controlled social media networks such as Weibo. This leads to the government having to take other measures to keep those voices down.
But how is this possible? Repeated patterns and reports shine a light on common detention procedures the authorities use in order to achieve their goal of ideological compliance. In one of his art exhibitions, Ai Weiwei portrayed his incarceration in one of the illegal secret detention facilities—so-called ‘black jails’—showing the constant surveillance and other abuse he had to face. This is in line with many other reports depicting rampant abuse such as beatings, along with sleep and food deprivation.
In hindsight, both Jack Ma and Peng Shuai claimed to have merely chosen to retreat from public spotlight. Still, these withdrawals are often subject to state-organised enforced disappearances, usually happening in the form of house arrests or so-called ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’ (RSDL). Increasingly, this has been the case since the 2013 and 2018 reforms of the Chinese Criminal Procedure Law, legally expanding the option from ‘soft arrests’ at the individuals‘ home, to detaining individuals for up to six months without legal representation and contact with relatives.
These procedures have been severely criticised, most recently in a 2021 joint report of five human rights organisations including Reporters Without Borders and Safeguard Defenders. Addressed to the UN, they deemed the system of forced detention to be “inconsistent with international standards”.
In almost all cases of famous detainees, they tend to reappear after a certain time. Still, it is not clear whether this is due to public scrutiny or their own influence. In the case of Jack Ma, he merely stated that he decided to keep a low profile and turn towards more philanthropic causes. However, reappearances are frequently accompanied by public apologies or televised ‘confessions’. Peng Shuai’s Zoom call with the International Olympic Committee in December 2021 is one of these cases. While she claimed to be of good health and opposed her initial sexual assault accusation, other international organisations were not able to partake in an independently confirmed call.
Safeguard Defenders, an NGO focusing on supporting human rights activists in Asia, released compelling evidence that the initial ‘confession calls’ could be staged. An analysis of several dozen of these calls show repeating patterns in the structure of the confessions, as well as difficulties telling what is happening off-camera. The calls are assumed to be used by state-controlled mass media to discredit the individuals and support primarily domestic political goals. It allows the Chinese government to re-align celebrities with its ideological stance.
The dis- and re-appearances of such high-profile personalities are risky for the Chinese authorities as these cases are usually much more visible to the international community than low-profile critics. The surprising response of the Women’s Tennis Association to cancel further tournaments in China due to concerns over Peng Shuai’s well-being effectively dragged their domestic matter on the international stage. On the other hand, this crackdown on critics has not only happened domestically, but also increasingly abroad. This makes the attempts to stifle the freedom of speech and the security of political dissidents in exile an even more critical issue.
So far, international efforts to prevent these human rights violations have been—attributed to the economic clout of China—relatively unsuccessful. But the backlash in the case of Peng Shuai was an additional instance that put the country hosting the Winter Olympics 2022 under increased international pressure. Whether this has an actual, long-term impact on the current path of the Chinese human rights crackdown remains another question to be answered.