The women’s professional tennis tour just called it quits on China. But within China, there is no news about the decision, no public discussion as to why, nor any response from Chinese tennis fans.
In contrast to the blanket silence at home, China’s government controlled-media lashed out at the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) on Twitter – a platform blocked in China – accusing the organization of “putting on an exaggerated show,” and “supporting the West’s attack on Chinese system.”
The two seemingly contradictory approaches reflect the extreme sensitivity attached to the WTA’s decision inside of China – and the explosive #MeToo allegation that sparked it.
When Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai publicly accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault on social media on November 2, the immediate response from authorities was to muffle her and censor even the vaguest allusion to the allegation.
But while that might have worked domestically, it served only to inflame reaction overseas.
Peng’s prolonged disappearance from public view prompted the world’s biggest tennis stars to demand answers to her whereabouts. In response, state media employees released a spate of “proof of life” photos and videos of Peng on Twitter, while authorities continue to censor all mention of her at home.
The same approach was applied again on Thursday, when the WTA announced an immediate suspension of all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, over Beijing’s silencing of Peng’s sexual assault allegations. Despite the state media firestorm on Twitter, Chinese social media platforms remained calm and quiet, with no sight of the nationalist rage that would usually engulf parties that are deemed to have “offended China.”
“China’s external propaganda on this matter is like a paper box that cannot hold water in front of its own people,” said Xiao Qiang, editor-in-chief of China Digital Times, a US-based news website tracking censorship in China.
“How ironic that they hope to use this narrative to convince the international community.”
To experts who have long monitored and analyzed China’s propaganda efforts, this apparently well-guarded parallel track belies a more chaotic reality.
“We could talk here about a two-pronged strategy, about how China has enforced complete silence at home while pushing a narrative externally about meddling journalists and the politicizing of sport. But to call it a strategy at all suggests a sophistication that is not really there,” said David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project.
“What we actually see is desperation, the editor-in-chief of one state-run newspaper rushing out on Twitter and banging his dishpan. The point is to distract the world from obvious and damning facts.”