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MERICS Briefs
MERICS China Essentials
14 min read

Peng Shuai + BRI + Anti-Monopoly Bureau

In this issue of the MERICS China Essentials we cover the following topics:

  • Top Story: “I’m just resting” – China’s two-track communication on the Peng Shuai case
  • China repackages its Belt and Road Initiative to compete with the US and Europe
  • China strengthens anti-monopoly toolkit, but don’t expect trust-busting 
  • China’s data protection framework nears implementation with key draft rules
  • Review: China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, by Peter Martin
  • Profile: Hui Kayan: The fall from grace of the man behind Evergrande

You can read a free excerpt of our latest MERICS China Essentials below. 

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“I’m just resting” – China’s two-track communication on the Peng Shuai case

After two weeks of radio silence, Chinese star athlete Peng Shuai finally reappeared in Chinese media channels – but only in international-facing ones. Within mainland China, by contrast, blanket censorship on the athlete and her accusations of sexual assault against China’s former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli are still in place.

State media journalists released emails and videos on Twitter – which is blocked in China – suggesting Peng is “just resting” and leading a normal life. They also hit back against international attention to the case, claiming that the West’s hype of the story is politically motivated.

This has done little to reassure international observers. Politicians, human rights groups, sports organizations and athletes such as Naomi Osaka have been demanding further answers about Peng’s whereabouts and safety. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has even hinted at pulling its business from China.

So far, the international propaganda flurry has failed to convince. As observers noted, an email supposedly sent by Peng seemed to be a screenshot of a word document. Footage and conversations looked scripted and homed in on dates, making them resemble proof-of-life videos, not social media posts. Rights organizations pointed out the similarities to the numerous videos from activists, dissidents and Uyghurs stating they are “fine” that have been released by state media over the years.

The only direct contact Peng has had to international actors was a call with IOC president Thomas Bach. He was promptly criticized by rights organizations for giving credence to Beijing’s story-telling efforts after saying that she seemed “fine”.

MERICS analysis: The case has added further fuel to calls to boycott the Olympics on the grounds of human rights violations in Xinjiang. Although it is unlikely a boycott will materialize, the Chinese government has been hitting back hard. State media, such as the Global Times, have gone on the offensive, calling this “ideological struggle” over the games a “catalyst for China's growth in mentality as a major power.” 

Clearly, it is not just Peng Shuai whose moves will be closely watched by the Chinese authorities. The Olympics may well turn into a loyalty test for sports associations, sponsors and athletes alike. In Beijing, there is little patience left for criticism. Foreign actors should therefore brace themselves for increased scrutiny of their statements and positions in the run-up to the Olympics, as well as a higher likelihood of retaliation to any perceived criticism.

Media coverage and sources:

METRIX

8.5

The 2020 birth rate in China, calculated as the total number of newborns per 1000 people, according to new figures from the National Bureau of Statistics. That is the lowest birthrate registered since 1978, when China began implementing the one-child policy. The 12 million babies born in 2020 also represent an 18 percent year-on-year decrease compared to 2019. This has largely been attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic, but also reflects long-term changes in individual family planning resulting from the one-child policy which ended only in 2015. (Sources: Global Times, Bloomberg, SCMP