By Beata Desselle
NANJING, CHINA — Peng Shuai was not the first Chinese celebrity to suddenly disappear and likely won’t be the last.
中国，南京 —— 彭帅不是第一个一夜之间就消失的中国名人，也不会是最后一个。
On November 2, 2021, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who is widely regarded as one of the best doubles players of all time, wrote an emotional post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo in which she described an affair she had with Zhang Gaoli, China’s former Vice Premier, appearing to accuse him of sexual assault. Although her original post never directly accused Zhang of sexual assault, many have read into the experience she chronicled as such, mostly due to the post’s details including a description of how Zhang forced, pressured, or pressed for her to have sex with him (the direct translation depends on how you translate the character 逼.）The post only survived about 20 minutes before being taken down by censors. Weibo accounts that discussed the post were suspended, and Weibo disabled the ability to search for Ms. Peng’s account.
After disappearing from social media and the public eye for a few weeks, the athlete has gradually resumed making public appearances. Along with these re-appearances, there have been efforts to walk back the contents of her Weibo post. Two weeks after her original post, a letter supposedly written by Peng Shuai was posted on Twitter by CGTN, an English-language arm of Chinese state media. This letter, widely dismissed as one not written by Ms. Peng herself, contradicts the contents of her original post and states that she is safe and not missing. She has also recently been seen in a video stating that she has “never said or written that anyone sexually assaulted” her. Many, including the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), are not taking this video as actual proof that no sexual misconduct happened or that Ms. Peng is completely free from state censorship and control. Most recently, at the beginning of the 2022 winter olympics, Ms. Peng told the French news outlet L’Equipe that she would be retiring from tennis.
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon occurrence in China. Celebrity disappearances orchestrated by government officials are becoming more and more salient. Fan BingBing, an actress, model, and singer who had been listed by Forbes as China’s highest-paid celebrity for four years in a row, is a high-profile example. She completely disappeared from the public eye for four months in 2018 after being investigated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for tax evasion.
More broadly, celebrities regularly face backlash for politically contentious work. Movie star Zhang Zhehan was deemed insensitive due to pictures of him posing for a photo at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, resulting in his social media profiles, films, and TV series being wiped from Chinese websites. Zhao Wei, a billionaire actress regarded as one of China’s biggest movie stars, was blacklisted and scrubbed from China’s internet in 2021. Ms. Zhao, who owns the public relations agency representing Zhang Zhehan, hired a Taiwanese actress for one of her films in 2016 and, back in 2001, wore a dress that featured a Japanese military flag. A more serious example of someone who actually criticized the CCP is social activist and China’s most famous modern artist, Ai Weiwei, who, after speaking out about China’s human rights violations, was imprisoned by the government for 81 days in 2011.
Why does the Chinese government censor these stars from public view? These stars are invariably charged with tax evasion, promoting unhealthy or unnationalistic values, or some charges which are not able to be corroborated.
为什么中国政府要雪藏这名人? 这些明星往往是被指控逃税、 推动不健康或非民族主义的价值观或者其他未经证实的指控。
The basis for these disappearances is rooted in fears of the public developing allegiances to not only the wrong values, but also to the wrong people. China’s fan economy is projected to reach $1 trillion by the end of 2023, and China’s fan culture and “idol economies” can be seen as symptoms of a fame-obsessed society. Celebrities have immense power to influence their fans; Chinese authorities are well aware of this. This could explain the disappearances of celebrities who didn’t seem to directly oppose the regime, such as Fan BingBing or Zhao Wei. They have amassed too much influence, potentially able to steer their millions of adoring fans in the wrong direction, and they must be checked before they act on that potential. This is why censorship rules are in place, blurring out or completely erasing creators who have promoted the wrong values.
According to Bochen Han, human rights researcher and Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) alumnus, Chinese authorities view these celebrities as having “too much power” in the form of collective action potential.“You never know what they could do” with all the influence they hold, so Beijing tries to “nip it before it actualizes,” she said.
韩博晨，人权研究员同时也是中美文化研究中心（HNC）的校友，认为，中国当局认为名人们在促成集体行动方面有“太多权力”。名人们拥有很大的影响力，“你永远都不知道他们可以用这些影响力做什么”，所以北京必须 “防微杜渐”， 她说。
Many people in the West were shocked to hear about Peng Shuai. The hashtag #whereispengshuai flooded social media feeds after having been posted by tennis superstars and cultural celebrities Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams. The WTA canceled all tournaments in China indefinitely with support from the Association of Tennis Professionals. Even President Biden brought attention to the issue, calling for “verifiable proof” of Peng Shuai’s safety.
很多西方人听说了彭帅的故事之后，感到很震惊。在网坛巨星Naomi Osaka和Serena Williams在社交媒体上发布#whereispengshuai (彭帅在哪里）的话题标签后，西方的社交媒体充斥着这一话题标签。在网球职业协会的支持下，WTA无限期取消了所有在中国的比赛。甚至，拜登总统都注意到了这个问题并要求（中国政府提供）可以证明彭帅安全的“可验证的证据”。
Peng Shuai’s case generated far more shock among international audiences than news of even bigger Chinese stars. Peng Shuai’s case resonates with Western audiences who have been embroiled in the #metoo movement for several years. Thus, her case is topical and seems especially egregious. In addition, the world of tennis may be one that allows for more connections between China and the rest of the world, compared to the film and music industries which operate very differently in China and the West. After all, without the attention drawn to her situation via social media by her famous tennis peers in other countries, the news of Ms. Peng’s disappearance likely wouldn’t have spread so quickly through Western media outlets.
Peng Shuai’s case has allowed international audiences to become more knowledgeable about Chinese celebrity disappearances, but what about Chinese audiences? Beijing wants China’s domestic population kept in the dark about the human rights abuses committed in China in order to maintain a loyal and nationalistic population. When asked about the Peng Shuai case, a Chinese student at the HNC said, “Who is Peng Shuai and what happened to her?” She explained that because of the internet firewall in China, a lot of political information cannot be accessed on the internet. What’s more, her friends who have VPNs not only don’t care about stories like these but rather view them “as a rumor or lie made up by Western media.”
The reality is that the domestic criticism about these abuses cannot be as strong as the international outcry. The Chinese population at large doesn’t have access to comprehensive information, and even folks with heightened access tend to interpret the abuses as exaggerated stories made up by Western media outlets obsessed with China-bashing. Beijing plans to keep it this way; as Ms. Han explained, “international attention and a reaction matters much less than Chinese public opinion or other Chinese interests.”
Despite the international outrage at this situation, as well as other violations of human rights in China, Beijing is unlikely to change its ways until the people within the country are allowed full awareness of these issues and demand better from their government. Although pressure from international audiences cannot necessarily secure freedom for disappeared celebrities such as Peng Shuai, such outside pressure usually ensures their physical safety.
Beata Desselle is reporting from New Orleans, Louisiana.