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Twitter Has a Peng Shuai Problem

The social network allowed itself to become a tool of Chinese propaganda and oppression.
December 10, 2021
Twitter Has a Peng Shuai Problem
Shuai Peng of China serves during her ladies singles second round match against Caroline Garcia of France during day five of the 2018 French Open at Roland Garros on May 31, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by XIN LI/Getty Images)

As international concern for Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star, mounted last month, a grotesque spectacle played out on Twitter. Chinese state media accounts took to the platform, sharing photos and videos in an apparent effort to show that Peng is alive and un-detained. The particular nature of this obviously coordinated social media campaign should force a conversation at Twitter headquarters about the morality of hosting China’s propagandists on the platform.

On November 2, Peng, a three-time Olympian, apparently alleged on Chinese social media that former vice premier Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted her. “Apparently” because media outlets have been unable to independently verify the post’s authenticity, and because Beijing’s censors went into overdrive to scrub the claims and discussion of them from the Chinese internet—but not before the allegations crossed the Great Firewall into the world beyond.

On November 14, after Peng hadn’t been heard from or seen in the 12 days since her initial post, Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) chairman Steve Simon publicly raised concerns about her welfare. The Peng affair exploded into public view. Two days later, Japanese tennis champ Naomi Osaka tweeted about Peng with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai. Serena Williams, arguably tennis’s biggest global star, followed suit. Numerous members of the tennis community and the broader sporting world expressed alarm in the following days.

Not long after, Chinese state media outlet CGTN posted a screenshot of an email Peng had purportedly sent to Simon which, due to its unverifiability and discomfiting woodenness, raised yet more concerns. So Beijing’s propaganda apparatus changed tack. On November 19, CGTN’s Shen Shiwei (58,500 Twitter followers) tweeted out three undated photos of Peng. Hu Xijin (455,600 followers) then retweeted Shen’s post. This marked an important shift in the Chinese Party-state’s approach. Before, it had sought to silence Peng and erase her from public consciousness; now, it sought to use her to pursue its own ends.

Arguably the most well-known Chinese media personality beyond China’s borders, Hu Xijin is editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a hawkish newspaper under the umbrella of the Chinese Communist Party-owned People’s Daily. Last month, he took on a new role: disseminator of proof-of-life videos.

On November 20, he posted two clips. In the first, which depicted Peng having a meal with China Open tournament co-director Zhang Junhui and two others, Zhang repeatedly mentions the date. Hu might as well have posted a video of Peng holding up the day’s newspaper. In the second video, of Peng and her party entering the restaurant, the cameraman zooms in on a placard showing the date. Strangely, the day on the placard is blurred out.

Hu posted two more videos of Peng making a choreographed appearance at a youth tennis tournament on November 21 in Beijing. Other state media accounts dutifully retweeted Hu’s “scoops.”

Proof-of-life videos, of course, are typically only necessary in the conduct of a crime. The clips may prove that Peng is alive, but they do not allay actual concerns: that she is not free, that she may be undergoing physical or mental duress, and that her assault claims are not being investigated. Even her November 21 video call with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach was not reassuring. As a WTA spokesperson put it, “This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern.’

The state media Twitter offensive has failed to put those worried about Peng at ease, but that offensive is not without victims. Beijing has shown that it can trot Peng out at will to do its bidding. Indeed, the CCP is attempting to use her as a tool to solve the problem she created for them, and Twitter has given CCP mouthpieces a platform on which to carry out that exploitation.

That is what makes Hu and his associates’ Twitter activity so repulsive. Peng’s words, choices, and even her body are apparently not her own. Assuming that there is truth to the allegations levied against Zhang, Peng is now being victimized all over again, used by people more powerful than her for their own twisted ends.

In all likelihood, the Peng Shuai affair cannot be resolved to the WTA’s liking. As long as Peng and her loved ones live in China, no one can ever again be sure that she is speaking freely. But this likewise means it is difficult to prove that Peng is being coerced. Twitter may find no cause to act if it simply measures the Chinese state media campaign against its terms of service.

But make no mistake: Hu and his friends are conducting acts of evil, and Twitter is providing a witting platform for them to do so.

Michael Mazza

Michael Mazza is a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the Global Taiwan Institute, and the German Marshall Fund of the United States.