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What Peng Shuai's disappearance says about Beijing's grip on power


It's been more than three weeks since Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared - that after she accused a former Chinese Communist Party leader of sexual assault. The tennis star resurfaced in videos and images released last weekend by the Chinese government. She was seen laughing with children at a sports tournament and, in another video, chatting awkwardly over a meal. The Chinese released a statement that authorities said was made by her saying she was fine, but Peng has made no direct statements. Some experts aren't convinced of Peng Shuai's well-being and think her disappearance is another sign of Beijing tightening its authoritarian grip over Chinese affairs.

Yan Bennett has written extensively on the rule of law in China. She is a former U.S. diplomat and is currently the assistant director of the Center on Contemporary China at Princeton University. Yan Bennett, welcome.

YAN BENNETT: Hi, David. Thank you so much for having me.

FOLKENFLIK: Let's start with those videos of Peng that were released last weekend. How convinced are you that Peng Shuai is safe?

BENNETT: Not at all. So this is very typical of the Chinese government is to disappear someone who's been critical of the Chinese government. The statements that she's made seem to be coerced and manipulated, so I would say that this isn't any guarantee of her safety.

FOLKENFLIK: You recently wrote a piece about this for the website The Conversation. In it, you argued that this disappearance serves as yet another vivid example of China's authoritarian control. Why so?

BENNETT: Well, so I've said before that China rules by law rather than rule of law. It's when the government uses legal procedure as a weapon against the people. A common example is corruption. It's endemic in China. Everyone says you have to commit corruption to get anything done. But whenever someone becomes a political enemy, then that person is hit with a corruption charge. It's not because it happened but because it was politically motivated. In this situation, she's been we call it disappeared by the Chinese government. But, you know, in legal terms here in the U.S., we would call this false imprisonment and kidnapping - right? - because, you know, she's now become a political enemy of the government.

FOLKENFLIK: In the last few years, we've seen Beijing tighten its grip in areas it controls and those over which it seeks greater influence. Take Hong Kong, treatment of the Uyghurs in the West and maneuvers in the South China Sea. Why is China cracking down now, of all times?

BENNETT: So there are two theories about this. There's the one - I think most people are aware of this - it's the neorealist, you know, China is countering American hegemony, and it's seeking global leadership, so it's doing this in order to assert its international leadership. The other theory, which is relatively new, is that China is now on the decline. It's reached its peak in terms of economic development. And so two scholars, they wrote in the foreign policy in Foreign Affairs that, you know, China will behave in dangerous and unpredictable ways because now it's fighting for international global leadership.

FOLKENFLIK: In speaking with one of my colleagues, he said that this was, in some ways, the Gabby Petito case of China.


FOLKENFLIK: Gabby Petito, of course, disappeared, turned out to have been killed and, while a terrible tragedy, was also the subject of much commentary over how, you know, young, white women in America get much more attention for disappearance or violence than those of other races or ages. Why do you make that comparison?

BENNETT: Well, so Peng, she's an internationally known sports figure, so this was made known to the entire world. But this happens every day. There are millions of Uyghurs who have been jailed and being detained in mass detention centers in Xinjiang for their religious beliefs and for their ethnicity. This is happening in Hong Kong. The people protesting in Hong Kong are just average citizens, and they're not being heard.

So that's why I compared it to Gabby Petito. You know, she captured the American imagination. You mentioned she was white and blond and, you know, she was on this van life adventure, right? And it captured the American imagination, and this has captured the American imagination. But, you know, we should not forget that this is happening every day in China, and there are human rights abuses happening in China that we can't overlook.

FOLKENFLIK: Before we let you go, put on your diplomat's hat for a moment. How should the U.S. move forward with a China that is, according to your analysis, tightening its grip on power in so many troubling ways?

BENNETT: So the U.S. Congress, they've spoken out against what China is doing in Xinjiang by deeming its actions there as potentially genocide. The White House has spoken out, saying that they might diplomatically boycott the Olympics by not sending any government officials to attend. The European Union, for example, they signed a trade agreement with China, but they did say something about what's happening in Xinjiang, and it - all movement on that trade agreement has stopped. Those are the kind of signals we need to send to China - that, you know, if we disapprove of what it's doing, we need to follow up with actual actions and deeds.

FOLKENFLIK: We've been hearing from Yan Bennett of the Center on Contemporary China at Princeton University. Yan Bennett, thanks so much for joining us.

BENNETT: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.