However, as Peng Shuai has proved, influencing the rest of the world is a different issue.
The Chinese government has improved its ability to regulate what the country’s 1.4 billion citizens believe and say.
Despite her public claim of sexual assault against a prominent former vice premier, Chinese official media and journalists have presented one piece of proof after another to ensure the top Chinese tennis player was safe and well.
The international outcry grew only louder. Instead of persuading the world, China’s ham-handed response has become a textbook example of its inability to communicate with an audience that it can’t control through censorship and coercion.
One Beijing-controlled news organisation claimed to have acquired an email she sent denying the allegations. Another provided a video of Ms. Peng at a meal, in which she and her guests discussed the date in a pretty prominent manner.
The ruling Communist Party communicates through one-way, top-down messaging. It seems to have a hard time understanding that persuasive narratives must be backed by facts and verified by credible, independent sources.
China has grown more sophisticated in recent years at using the power of the internet to advance a more positive, less critical narrative — an effort that appears to work from time to time. But at its heart, China’s propaganda machine still believes the best way to make problems disappear is to shout down the other side. It can also threaten to close off access to its vast market and booming economy to silence companies and governments that don’t buy their line.
“Messages like these are meant as a demonstration of power: ‘We are telling you that she is fine, and who are you to say otherwise?’” Mareike Ohlberg, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a Berlin research institute, wrote on Twitter. “It’s not meant to convince people but to intimidate and demonstrate the power of the state.”
China has a history of less-than-believable testimonials. A jailed prominent lawyer denounced her son on state television for fleeing the country. A Hong Kong bookstore manager who was detained for selling books about the private lives of Chinese leaders said after his release that he had to make a dozen recorded confessions before his captors were satisfied. This time, the world of women’s tennis isn’t playing along and has suggested it will stop holding events in China until it is sure Ms. Peng is truly free of government control. The biggest names in tennis — Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic, among many others — don’t seem to be afraid to lose access to a potential market of 1.4 billion tennis fans either. The pushback is problematic because the Winter Olympics in Beijing are just weeks away from opening.
The country’s huge army of propagandists has failed its top leader Xi Jinping’s expectations that it take control of the global narrative about China. But it shouldn’t take all the blame: The failure is ingrained in the controlling nature of China’s authoritarian system. “It can make Peng Shuai play any role, including putting up a show of being free,” Pin Ho, a New York-based media businessman, wrote on Twitter.
For Chinese officials in charge of crisis management, he continued, such control is routine. “But for the free world,” he said, “this is even more frightening than forced confessions.” One of the biggest giveaways that Ms. Peng isn’t free to speak her mind is that her name remains censored on the Chinese internet.