Tennis player Peng Shuai, who became world number one in doubles in 2014, is not the first celebrity to disappear in China, nor, sadly, will she be the last. Like Peng, whose whereabouts were unknown for 18 days until the propaganda department showed videos of her last weekend, artists, tycoons, film and music stars have all vanished in the past because they fell foul of the Communist Party’s authoritarian regime.
In the case of the tennis player, she accused a former deputy prime minister, Zhang Gaoli, of sexual abuse, having been his lover for years. On the night of 2 November, Peng Shuai posted on her Weibo account -a copy of Twitter, which is blocked in China)- a long and heartfelt statement recounting her relationship with the politician, who was deputy prime minister between 2013 and 2018 and a member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee between 2012 and 2017. Although the censors deleted her comment within half an hour, some web surfers spread the screenshot that sparked the scandal.
The tennis player, 35, alleged that Zhang Gaoli, 75, abused her in 2018, when he had already retired from his positions. «You took me to your house and forced me to have sex,» accused Peng, who assured that «I did not give my consent that evening and could not stop crying.» Appealing to their relationship of years past, which Zhang Gaoli himself severed when he reached the top of the regime, he insisted that she have sex with him. «After dinner, I still didn’t want to do it and you said you hated me. You also said you hadn’t forgotten me for the last seven years and that you would treat me well…. I was scared, I was in panic. But I was also carrying the feelings I’d had for you for those seven years. So I agreed. Yes, we had sex,» admitted the tennis player, who ended up giving in to the man’s pressure. Despite this alleged sexual assault, she again became his occasional lover and they resumed the extramarital relationship, which, according to her testimony, was consented to throughout by the politician’s wife, whom she compared to an empress from a television series who looked down on her as if she were a concubine.
Although the censors tried to cover up the scandal and Peng Shuai was pulled out of circulation, the mobilisation of tennis stars has been crucial for her to be seen in public again. After her orchestrated appearances in a restaurant and at a children’s tennis tournament, where she was always accompanied and said absolutely nothing, she spoke by video call with the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach. According to the IOC statement, which only showed a snapshot of the conversation, the tennis player assured that she was «fine» and wanted «privacy».
A long and varied list
But doubts persist as to her freedom because, in China, the list of reasons for which one can be volatilised is as long and varied as the number of people who have disappeared. They range from political reasons such as denunciations against the regime, which in 2011 landed the famous artist Ai Weiwei in a secret prison for 81 days, to public shamings such as that suffered last year by Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, who also disappeared for three months for criticising the country’s stagnant financial system in front of vice-president Wang Qishan. Days later, Chinese authorities suspended the IPO of Ant Group, Alibaba’s financial arm, which was to be the biggest of the year, raising 37 billion dollars (30.25 billion euros). And, after two months, they opened an investigation into Alibaba for monopoly that ended up with the largest fine of its kind ever levied in China: 18.2 billion yuan (2.54 billion euros).
After three months with no news from him, Jack Ma reappeared in January this year in a video address to a group of rural teachers honoured by his foundation. In it, he claimed that he had spent all that time «studying and thinking» until he came to the conclusion that entrepreneurs should assist in «the revitalisation of the countryside and common prosperity», one of President Xi Jinping’s latest slogans. Pardoned by the regime after these public confessions, Ma was sighted last month sailing his luxury yacht in the waters of the Balearic Islands.
But while some reappear, others disappear. Besides tennis player Peng Shuai, the latest star to be swallowed by the earth, i.e. the regime, is actress Zhao Wei. Overnight, her films and series were removed from Chinese platforms in August and her account was deactivated on the social network Weibo, where she has more than 85 million followers. As has occurred all over the world with Peng Shuai, the hashtag #WhathappenedwithZhaoWei in Mandarin became a trend in China despite the censorship, and rumours of her disappearance were unleashed, which have yet to be clarified. In the midst of all the mystery, Zhao herself had to deny on Instagram, which is censored in China, that she had fled to France, where she owns a vineyard in Bordeaux with her husband. Since then, she has only been seen on a couple of occasions, in her hometown and at a public event, but her presence has been erased from the Internet and no reason has been given.
Her case and that of actress Zheng Shuang, likewise banned in the summer after being fined 299 million yuan (39 million euros) for not paying taxes, bring to mind the purge suffered in 2018 by another popular star, Fan Bingbing. The heroine of international blockbusters such as «X-Men: Days of Future Past» and acclaimed Chinese films such as «I am not Madame Bovary», which won an award at San Sebastian in 2016 along with her performance, she went missing for four months and was also fined 884 million yuan (110 million euros) for tax evasion.
Her sudden and long absence triggered speculation that she had been arrested, until she finally reappeared, confessing that she had evaded the Treasury. «I have recently suffered pain and agony that I have never known before. I feel ashamed and guilty for what I have done,» she publicly apologised on her Weibo account. Although Fan Bingbing was confessing on social media, her speech sounded like the dark times of the «Cultural Revolution» (1966-76). «It could be said that every part of my achievements cannot be separated from the support of the state and the people. Without the good policies of the Communist Party and the state, without the love and care of the people, Fan Bingbing would not exist,» wrote the actress in the usual propaganda wording.
Not showing up for weeks
Almost at the same time that Fan Bingbing resurfaced, in late September 2018 the very head of Interpol, China’s Meng Hongwei, was unaccounted for after flying to Beijing from Lyon, where Interpol’s headquarters are located. As in the case of the actress, not even the international repercussions of his arrest spared him from disappearing for two weeks, until Beijing finally acknowledged that he was being detained for corruption. After nine months in a secret prison without access to a lawyer, he was tried in June 2019 and admitted to having accepted bribes worth 14.4 million yuan (1.8 million euros) between 2005 and 2017, when he was deputy minister of Public Security and head of the Chinese Maritime Police.
Sentenced to thirteen and a half years in prison, Meng Hongwei became the latest victim of president Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, aimed at purging anyone who tries to cast a shadow over him. Since he took power between 2012 and 2013, more than 1.5 million Communist Party cadres have been punished, including 35 senior members of the Central Committee and numerous political rivals that Xi has cleared out of his way. Among them is the former minister of public security, Zhou Yongkang, who was Meng Hongwei’s superior and in 2015 was also sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption. He was followed by other high-ranking military officials accused of conspiring against president Xi when he took over from his predecessor, Hu Jintao, whose «right-hand man», Ling Jihua, was likewise sentenced to life in prison.
Although Meng Hongwei’s disappearance provoked a diplomatic conflict with France, which ended up granting political asylum to his wife and children, another official from China’s Ministry of Public Security, Hu Binchen, was elected this week to one of Interpol’s executive committee posts. This is yet another sign of Beijing’s growing power, which is increasingly present in international institutions despite its egregious violations of human rights.
Chinese law authorises, without notice to judges, prosecutors, lawyers or relatives, the confinement of suspects for up to six months under the so-called «Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location» (RSDL). Behind this euphemism lies a sinister «Gulag Archipelago» with detention and interrogation centres where dissidents, human rights lawyers, social activists and Party cadres under investigation for corruption are put away. And also billionaire tycoons, celebrities and critical artists such as Ai Weiwei, who in 2013, while he was in Beijing, mounted an exhibition at the Venice Biennale inspired by the 81 days he was held by the police while being investigated for tax evasion. With realistic glass figures made in secret in China and then sent to Italy, Ai Weiwei showed his captivity, which took place in 2011 and in which two agents watched over him 24 hours a day, remaining within 80 centimetres of him while he ate, walked a few steps around his cell, slept and even when he had to use the bathroom.
Meanwhile, Swedish activist Peter Dahlin, who headed the Beijing-based NGO China Action to train lawyers, was also held for 23 days in January 2016. As he told ABC in a subsequent interview, he was released after confessing on state-run CCTV television that he had «broken the law, hurt the government and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.» Like him, other lawyers and dissidents, such as five Hong Kong booksellers «kidnapped» by the regime in 2015, have acknowledged their «crimes» on Chinese television in appearances reminiscent of “The Confession», the film by Costa-Gavras. Some were later released. But others, such as the blogger Fang Bin, who reported from Wuhan on the outbreak of the coronavirus, or the Chinese-Australian journalist Cheng Lei, arrested in August last year and accused of espionage, remain tucked away in the «black hole» of the Chinese regime.