The Women’s International Tennis Association (WTA) announced this week that it is suspending all tournaments in China, sparking widespread international concern. On the one hand, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has expressed its anger at the WTA through official media; on the other hand, it has suppressed the news internally, so that the domestic public cannot see any news about the WTA’s withdrawal from China, cannot find any public discussion on the matter, and does not have any response from Chinese tennis fans.
CNN published an analysis on Dec. 4, pointing out that, contrary to the total silence at home, the Chinese Communist government-controlled media took to Twitter to slam the WTA, denouncing the organization’s behavior as too exaggerated. Twitter is a social media outlet that is blocked in China, but widely used overseas.
According to the article, the two seemingly contradictory approaches taken by the Chinese Communist Party to the WTA suspension overseas and at home reflect the extreme sensitivity within China of the WTA’s decision and the explosive #MeToo allegations that triggered the WTA suspension.
Photo of Steve Simon, CEO of the Women’s International Tennis Association (WTA). (Roslan Rahman/AFP)
When Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai publicly accused former Chinese Communist Party Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault on her Weibo account in early November, the authorities’ immediate response was to suppress the information at home, but that approach provoked a fierce response from overseas.
The WTA announced on Dec. 1 that it was suspending all tournaments in China (including Hong Kong). Despite the tongue-lashing on Twitter by official Communist Party media, domestic social media platforms remained calm and did not see the nationalist outrage that would normally be seen from the party.
“According to David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, the Communist Party’s practice of keeping the people in the dark and venting its anger externally “actually shows the desperation [of the Communist Party]. The editor-in-chief of a state-run newspaper was seen rushing out on Twitter in a key effort to distract the world from the obvious.
On Dec. 2, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the official Chinese Communist Party media Global Times, became the first government employee to challenge the WTA’s decision – but only on Twitter.
“The WTA is coercing Peng Shuai to support Western attacks on the Chinese system. They are taking away Peng Shuai’s freedom of speech.” Hu Xijin tweeted.
The Global Times also tweeted an “editorial” in English, accusing the WTA of “bringing politics deeper into women’s tennis.” The editorial did not mention what triggered the WTA’s first decision to pull out of China.
The “editorial” was not posted on the newspaper’s Chinese social media accounts, but only appeared on its English website. But even so, it was hidden on the homepage, a far cry from the way editorials are usually displayed.
In another English article, the Global Times said that the China Tennis Association (CTA) was “outraged and firmly opposed” to the WTA’s decision. But curiously, the CTA’s response was not reported in the Chinese media, nor was it posted on its own website.
The CTA did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
The Chinese Communist Party has strictly blocked news of the WTA’s withdrawal internally
At a Dec. 2 press conference, CCP Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said in response to a reporter’s question about the WTA’s withdrawal from China, “China has always been firmly opposed to any politicization of sports.” However, this one question about the WTA’s withdrawal along with Wang Wenbin’s response is missing from the official transcript of the regular press conference posted daily on the Foreign Ministry’s website.
Shortly after the WTA announced its withdrawal from China, some Weibo users strongly supported the decision under an old post on the WTA’s official Weibo account. (The WTA did not post the Chinese version of its announcement on Weibo).
“The WTA has backbone!” One user commented, “How has this man not been caught yet, his backing is really super strong. This is ridiculous.” The comments were clearly directed at Zhang Gaoli.
But the posts soon disappeared, and a search on Weibo on Dec. 2 for the topic of the WTA’s suspension yielded no results.
“Someone is busy deleting posts.” One user wrote under a third post, which was also deleted, and comments on the post were disabled.
Expert: WTA’s decision extremely sensitive for CCP
CNN noted that Beijing has been hiding its anger over the WTA from the Chinese public, showing how serious and sensitive the scandal is in the eyes of the ruling Communist Party – especially since the incident comes ahead of next year’s party congress and Xi Jinping’s quest for a third term.
“It’s kind of like an external storm that they want to keep outside of China,” Bandusky was quoted as saying.
“This is an extremely sensitive issue for the (Chinese Communist Party) leadership. I think this is probably one of the most sensitive news events that has happened in the last decade.”
The Chinese Communist government’s main concern was readily apparent in Hu Xijin’s tweet, in which he accused the WTA of attacking the “Chinese system.”
Fundamentally, Bandusky said, this is about protecting the Chinese (Communist Party) political system, which is Beijing’s only concern.
“Because once they actually talk about it in the country, people will ask, ‘Well, what about Zhang Gaoli? Is this for real? This is a senior official, why is nothing happening to him? What happened to him? Where is he?’ And these questions immediately go to the heart of (the party’s) power and legitimacy.”
CCP Lacks Confidence in Its Ability to Gain Public Support
To some extent, CNN notes, the sweeping rhetorical censorship surrounding the Peng Shuai incident and its ill effects also reveal Beijing’s lack of confidence in its ability to fabricate stories and gain public support.
In the face of international criticism related to Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet, Beijing has gained some domestic support by in turn condemning Western companies, organizations and governments for interfering in “China’s internal affairs” while stoking nationalist sentiment on social media. But CNN says the Peng Shuai case is a different matter. Her accusation against Zhang Gaoli, a former member of the Communist Party’s top standing committee, could spark anger and sympathy among Chinese, especially young women, many of whom have expressed support for the victims in previous #MeToo cases.
If the Communist Party is too afraid to try to convince its own people, any attempt to influence international opinion will almost certainly fail, experts say.
Bandusky argues that there are serious news outlets overseas and serious political institutions – such as the United Nations and the European Union – that have issued statements on the Pang incident. And the Chinese Communist Party has limited resources for overseas publicity on the matter. “I think in that sense, it’s very foolish.”
Xiao Qiang, editor-in-chief of China Digital Times, a news site that tracks censorship in China, was quoted by CNN as saying, “China’s (CCP) foreign propaganda on this issue is like a cardboard box.”
“How ironic that they want to use this narrative to convince the international community.”