It is possible, albeit unlikely, that the tennis star Peng Shuai, one of China’s most successful sportswomen, is safe, secure, and not subject to intimidation after several publicised appearances following weeks out of the public eye.

Even if this is the case, how can anyone believe the version of events concocted by official mainland media? Is it any more credible than, for example, the forced confessions of wrongdoing by the abducted and jailed Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai? Or is it on a par with the coerced televised confession of the previously imprisoned former journalist Peter Humphrey? This grotesque charade was deemed to be sufficiently egregious to persuade Britain’s media regulator of the need to withdraw the broadcasting license held by CGTN, China’s overseas flagship TV station.

Peng Shuai
Peng Shuai. File photo: Wikicommons.

In other words, Chinese state media has form when it comes to disseminating unreliable information about the fate of those who have incurred official disfavour, a fate that becomes even more uncertain should they have dared to criticise the people who rule the country.

Peng says she was sexually assaulted by former Politburo member Zhang Gaoli, a leading Communist Party official about as close to the General Secretary as it is possible to be. This crosses a red line so deeply emblazoned across the mainland system that the chances of her allegation being investigated range from zero downward.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that Peng’s claims were rapidly and comprehensively removed from the public record, a move echoed in Hong Kong where the once respected public broadcaster RTHK also scrubbed from the record its previous reporting of this affair. Other media outlets followed suit or, in the new manner that is becoming increasingly commonplace, did not quite echo their mainland counterparts but effectively followed in their tarnished footsteps by either ceasing to report on what has become a major international story or doing so with minimal prominence and maximum deference to their master’s sensitivities.

The inevitable outcome of this state of affairs is that mainstream media in Hong Kong is sliding down the black hole that has already consumed the media across the border. 

Beijing 2022 Olympics winter
Photo: IOC.

Despite the enormous credibility gap that overshadows the mainland there are official protestations of complete indifference to what the rest of the world has to say about its lack of credibility. In the case of the Peng debacle this seeming indifference was severely undermined by Beijing’s ham-fisted attempt to gain credibility by dragging the hapless International Olympic Committee (IOC) into the farrago with a staged televised exchange between Peng and the IOC’s president Thomas Bach.

The IOC is already walking on eggshells to justify and make a success of its decision to hold the winter Olympics in Beijing and therefore is heavily invested in keeping the Chinese government onside. Yet, instead of providing reassurance, the main outcome of this uncomfortable encounter has been to drag the IOC into the scepticism over more or less anything that emanates from Beijing by way of information. 

Meanwhile it is not at all certain that citizens of the PRC believe everything they are told by state media or are satisfied by the flow of information that is permitted within the Great Cyber Wall of China. A telling example came during the early stages of the Covid crisis. Such was the scale of anger over the treatment of the sadly deceased Covid whistleblower Dr Li Wenliang that the state was actually forced into a U-turn on its treatment of Li and on the official narrative of events.

Shenzhen Bay Covid-19 border
Shenzhen Bay port, which Chief Executive Carrie Lam said will not be used for setting up temporary polling facilities. Photo: GovHK.

Now, the repercussions of Beijing’s secrecy and misinformation over the origins of the Covid pandemic mean that more or less anything China has to say in the international arena on this subject is treated with studied scepticism and distrust. This has repercussions way beyond the credibility of PRC propaganda as the erosion of trust rapidly spreads to the much wider universe of international relations.

What is therefore clear is that it is far easier to exert control over the media than to achieve credibility. This is hardly a staggering insight but it is one that will never be acknowledged by authoritarian regimes.

The process of farce quickly shifting towards tragedy is there for all to see, not least in Hong Kong where the evolution of authoritarianism has yet to be completed and the Quislings in diapers charged with fulfilling this mission are unsure how to control the flow of information. Thus, they resort to a default response to the challenges of handling freedom of expression with a dismal mixture of lying and denying.

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Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship