If you’ve ever thought about getting into the agitprop business – you know, black ops, state-level misinformation campaigns – but worry you don’t have the qualifications or experience, then great news. China could probably use your help.
Over the weekend, the case of disappeared Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai took a turn into Pink Panther territory.
Ms. Peng had been AWOL for more than two weeks after accusing China’s former vice-premier of sex assault. When tennis star Naomi Osaka noticed, her absence became a (very literal) cause célèbre. Every célèbre in the sports world wanted in on this one.
The Peng Shuai scandal has quickly become a public relations disaster for the Chinese government
Correctly reading its own room, the Women’s Tennis Association came down two-footed on the Chinese regime. China responded with an e-mail “from” Ms. Peng (this column will contain a lot of sarcastic quote marks). That bungled attempt at damage control made things worse.
The WTA threatened to pull all of its business out of China unless Ms. Peng was physically produced.
Though the threat was limited, the scope was not. If the WTA pulled out, every other major sporting concern would need to be seen doing likewise, or risk running afoul of its own highly brand-conscious employees. This could have been the (temporary) end of pro sports in China, as well as killing whatever good-time vibes might be wrung from the coming Beijing Olympics.
Things got serious enough that the IOC was forced to wade in. Its goals and constituencies are different than the WTA’s (find me a Winter Olympian who’s all for boycotting Beijing), so its “threats” sounded more like invitations to negotiate.
“If that’s not resolved in a sensible way very soon, it may spin out of control,” Canadian IOC vice-president Dick Pound told Reuters. “Whether that escalates to a cessation of the Olympic Games, I doubt it. But you never know.”
“But you never know” – as lines drawn in the sand go, that’s more of a line drawn in the air with your wet finger. It isn’t really a line, is it?
Nonetheless, you can imagine the increasingly irritated calls running down from the Central Committee to whatever group of saps works in the Phony Correspondence Dept. – “How is it we can launch a rocketship, but we can’t come up with an e-mail that doesn’t sound like it was written by a sentient calculator?”
That’s about when Ms. Peng made a sudden series of “appearances” in “public.” The videos arrived via the social-media feeds of Hu Xijin, the editor of a Communist Party newspaper.
The most remarkable of them is one taken in a restaurant for a “night out” with “friends.”
The conversation going on around Ms. Peng is totally normal. When someone notes aloud that it is Nov. 20, a second person corrects the first person and says that it is instead Nov. 21. The first person then repeats the revised date – Nov. 21 – twice. Just the sort of light calendar-oriented banter you’d expect among comrades.
Other videos showed Ms. Peng swinging by the opening of a youth tennis tournament in Beijing.
After the WTA refused to accept the videos as proof of life, Mr. Hu switched tactics. Another video released Sunday morning Eastern time showed Ms. Peng signing autographs for kids.
“Can any girl fake such sunny smile under duress,” the caption reads in English. “Those who suspect Peng Shuai is under duress, how dark they must be inside.”
However clumsy these efforts are, they deadened the impact of the “vanished woman” story so beloved by every sort of press, from the most high-minded to the yellow. Ms. Peng wasn’t vanished anymore (though whether she is free remains an open question).
You can see where this game went awry. The WTA demanded to see Ms. Peng. It was shown her. It said something to the effect of, “That wasn’t what we meant by ‘seeing.’ We demand to hear from her.” And China said, “We want to help, but I wish you guys would make up your mind.”
This is what happens when you apply a democratic solution to an autocratic problem. You think there are rules, but there are no rules. If you manage to get the other side to agree on a few rules, the rules change.
“We need to see her in a live video holding up a newspaper from today or, better yet, hitting balls,” tennis commentator Patrick McEnroe told the New York Times.
Right – a hostage video will do the trick. I’m pretty sure the boys at state security can figure that out. Once you start vacillating this way, it’s over.
On Sunday afternoon, the IOC said that president Thomas Bach and other officials had had a pleasant, half-hour Zoom chat with Ms. Peng. She was described as “relaxed.” Apparently, they’re all having dinner together when Mr. Bach shows up for the Games.
So that’s that then. Some people won’t be satisfied until Ms. Peng is doing press from the White House in a Free Hong Kong T-shirt, but China has sewn enough confusion here that a tidal wave of outrage is now a gentle swell of outrage.
You can see the invisible hand of the IOC at work in all of this. Olympic bosses had earlier referred to “quiet diplomacy” being the best path forward.
There was no reason to doubt the WTA’s good intentions about protecting a member of the tennis family. But this was never about human rights, writ large.
It was about negotiating to a point where everyone gets what they want, everyone looks like they won and everyone keeps making money.
To our eyes, the videos of Ms. Peng look somewhere between laughable and sinister. But in the bizarro mishmash of totalitarian regimes and million-dollar deals, they have done the trick.
If nothing else, it’s a useful reminder to the rest of us. Our government is never perfect. But we get to live in a place where up and down don’t move around depending on who stands to profit and how the ruling party is feeling that day.