But influencing the rest of the world is a different matter, as Peng Shuai has aptly demonstrated.
Chinese state media and its journalists have offered one piece of evidence after another to prove the star Chinese tennis player was safe and sound despite her public accusation of sexual assault against a powerful former vice premier.
One Beijing-controlled outlet claimed it obtained an email she wrote in which she denied the accusations. Another offered up a video of Ms. Peng at a dinner, in which she and her companions rather conspicuously discussed the date to prove that it was recorded this past weekend.
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.
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.
In its official comments, China’s foreign ministry has mostly dodged questions about Ms. Peng, claiming first to be unaware of the matter, then that the topic fell outside its purview. On Tuesday, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman, leaned on a familiar tactic: questioning the motives behind the coverage of Ms. Peng’s allegations. “I hope certain people will stop malicious hype, not to mention to politicize it,” he told reporters.
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…
Read More News: Why China Can’t Bury Peng Shuai and Its #MeToo Scandal