in China, enforced disappearances muzzle criticism

But where is the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who disappeared after denouncing the rape inflicted on her by a powerful politician? And, above all, how does it really go beyond the facade images posted since by a media close to power? This is the question of the moment. And she has an air of déjà vu.

Remember. At the beginning of 2021, the question was: where did Jack Ma, the billionaire, founder of Alibaba, go?

In 2018, Interpol was looking for its own boss, China’s Meng Hongwei. His wife had announced the “worrying disappearance” of her husband.

Jack Ma, the boss of Interpol, an actress, a real estate mogul …

The “worrying disappearances” of prominent personalities (in particular…) are common in China. We can also quote the actress Fan BingBing (The Avengers), or whistleblowers on the health crisis.

All have in common that they have raised their voices a little too much, explains Thierry Kellner, specialist in Chinese foreign policy in the Department of Political Science at ULB.. “It affects people who speak a bit loudly, have criticized Xi Jinping or other official figures. Peng Shuai denounced rape allegedly committed by former Deputy Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli. I have in mind too real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang. He was followed a lot [sur les réseaux sociaux], he published a text in which he criticized Xi Jinping’s response to the Covid-19 epidemic. He disappeared shortly after.”

No one is immune

Ren Zhiqiang was a member of the Chinese Communist Party. No one is immune. “For party members, specifies Thierry Kellner, There’s the Central Party Discipline Inspection Commission, which closely monitors everything that is done inside the party, and which is also an instrument used by Xi Jinping to ward off those who disturb him. These people are summoned and then at some point disappear and we don’t see them again for months or even years. “

These arrests and these disappearances serve to create a climate of fear, to show that no one should believe himself to be safe, that no one is above the party. They serve as examples, and thus encourage self-censorship. It muzzles criticism.”

“A climate of terror”

In a column published in the newspaper Liberation in 2019, the lawyer and human rights defender, Teng Biao, testifies : “On three occasions, in 2008, 2011 and 2012, I was one of the political dissidents and human rights lawyers who were victims of enforced disappearances. I was held incommunicado, my head covered by a black hood blocking all light, with no way of knowing where I was, and subjected to physical and psychological abuse. ”

Even for people still at large, poursuit Teng Biao, enforced disappearances have serious consequences. They create a climate of terror. If you know that the state is not bound by any law and can kidnap you anytime, anywhere, what are the chances that you will criticize that same state in public?

Die or reappear, muzzled

What is in danger of happening to Peng Shuai? As international pressure increased, pictures of the star player first appeared on the web. Then, this Saturday, Chinese state media published several videos of the player. For WTA President Steve Simon, “video alone is not enough“to show that she is”free to decide and act“.

There are several scenarios”, Replies Thierry Kellner (ULB). “There have been cases of people who were subjected to torture and died as a result. There are also people who reappear on television, confess all their mistakes, and then are sentenced to 10, 15, 20 years in prison.

In the case of Peng Shuai, international pressure could work in his favor ”but she will probably have to reconsider her remarks, to relativize them very strongly, or to give a more watered-down version of them”.

The image of China, on the eve of the Beijing Winter Olympics

Already, before the publication of the photos and videos, the Chinese public television CGTN had published a screenshot of an email which was attributed to him and which declared his accusations against Zhang Gaoli “false”.

The authorities will do everything to protect this retired but still influential politician. Especially since the #MeToo movement has no place in China: “There are feminists, concedes the professor at ULB, women who try to speak out but sexual harassment is still taboo in China. It is a very patriarchal country. The Party is still largely dominated by men: 83% of its members (90 million in total!) Are men.

A few months before the Olympic Winter Games to be held in Beijing, the matter is delicate for the Chinese Communist Party. “International mobilization puts Beijing in a delicate situation. The Olympics are an important showcase for the party, because the image of China has already deteriorated because of the coronavirus.

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