China Believed Using Singapore Media for Peng Shuai PR
Skepticism over Chinese star’s interview on Weibo rape charges
International tennis star Peng Shuai’s interview last week with what has been called one of the most pro-China Chinese-language newspapers outside the country is suspected to be at the behest of Beijing, which is believed to be attempting to quell international indignation over its alleged bid to muzzle Peng’s accusations of forced sex by retired senior Chinese official Zhang Gaoli.
The former Olympiad’s case has damaged the public relations of the Beijing Winter Olympics scheduled for next February, with the UK, US, Australia, and Canada announcing they won’t send diplomats to the games. Chinese state media’s earlier publication of photos and videos of Peng failed to convince many in the international community that all was well with the former world doubles champion.
On December 3, Steve Simon, chairman and chief executive officer of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), announced the WTA suspended all its tournaments in China. International skepticism remains over the latest attempt at damage control via Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore’s main Chinese-language newspaper.
“The Chinese government is definitely behind Lianhe Zaobao to increase the credibility of the story. If the story was by state media, it would carry far less weight,” a China watcher told Asia Sentinel. “Peng Shuai was under pressure to say what she said. We’ve seen this too often with the self-incrimination on TV. All these are popular tactics of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party).”
Examples of victims of forced confessions in China include Peter Humphrey, a British man who previously ran a risk consultancy in Shanghai and now lives in the UK.
“Zaobao is called by many the real People’s Daily overseas,” said the China watcher. Zaobao generally publishes articles friendly to Beijing.
“I can understand why ZB (Zaobao) could not resist a scoop but it has just reinforced the impression that it is a PRC (People’s Republic of China) stooge,” said Bilahari Kausikan, a retired Singapore diplomat known for being anti-China, in a post on his Facebook on December 21.
On December 19, Zaobao published an exclusive story of its interview with Peng, including a video of the interview which took place in Shanghai. In that interview, Peng said she was visiting Shanghai from Beijing where she lives. She told Zaobao, “Why should I be monitored? I have always been very free.”
She added, “I have never spoken or written about anyone sexually assaulting me. That’s a very important point to emphasize and make clear. Regarding my Weibo post, that is my private matter. It has created a lot of misunderstanding among everyone.”
In the video, Peng’s mannerisms and facial expression appeared tense and artificial.
Although she said she had never written or spoken about sexual assault, in the interview with Zaobao, she didn’t deny writing the November 2 allegation on the popular Chinese social media platform Weibo that the 75-year-old Zhang had non-consensual sex with her in a room at Zhang’s home, while his wife Kang Jie guarded the door, as Asia Sentinel reported on December 6.
Peng’s Weibo post revealed she and Zhang had consensual sexual relations until he was promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee, the team of China’s most senior leaders, in November 2012. Zhang, a former vice premier, stepped down from the committee in October 2017. Peng’s Weibo post was deleted by state censors 20 minutes after it appeared.
In a statement on December 20, the WTA said: “We remain steadfast in 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.”
Bilahari commented on WTA not being satisfied with Peng’s withdrawal of her rape allegation in another Facebook post on December 21, “Few would be (except ZB?)”
Also on December 20, Chris Evert, a former US world number one tennis champion, tweeted about Zaobao’s interview of the 35-year Peng, calling it unsettling.”
Human Rights Watch tweeted on December 20 a statement by its senior China researcher Yaqiu Wang, “If Beijing really wants to prove Peng Shuai is free and all is fine, then stop censoring the Chinese internet about her case and launch a fair and transparent investigation into her sexual assault allegation.”
Although Peng withdrew her allegation that Zhang had non-consensual sex with her, it doesn’t mean the former top official is out of trouble. In her interview with Zaobao, Peng didn’t deny her past consensual relationship with Zhang, describing it as a private matter.
According to the CCP’s rules, an official who “has improper sexual relations with others, resulting in a bad influence” is liable to varying degrees of punishment. If the offense is not serious, the official will be warned. If the offense is serious, the official will be expelled from the party which often leads to imprisonment. The Chinese government’s charges against corrupt officials often included improper sexual relations like keeping mistresses.
Peng’s withdrawal of her rape allegations against Zhang won’t restore his reputation, said a British consultant. “He’s been exposed now. His reputation has been destroyed, he’s done as a public figure.”
Zhang could possibly face punishment, said the consultant who declined to be named. Destroying Zhang’s reputation would make it easier for Chinese President Xi Jinping to attack the power base of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, he added. Zhang belongs to Jiang’s faction known as “the Shanghai gang,” which is seeking to depose Xi, Asia Sentinel reported on November 30.
Xi must be behind Peng in making her allegations against Zhang on November 2, said the consultant.
“Peng would have known the consequences she would face from Zhang’s camp by opening up. So she just rolled the dice and took a chance?” the consultant asked rhetorically.
“Zhang will provide a good handle for Xi to purge the Jiang clique,” said the China watcher.
Zhang won’t be punished before the Winter Olympics in February, because it will be bad publicity for the international event, the China watcher predicted. “After the Olympics, he will be in trouble.”
Ironically, Zhang was formerly the head of a government working group on the Winter Olympics.