Chinese Tennis Star Peng Shuai Could Face Torture in Secret Jail

Peng’s disappearance shows Beijing's repression tools are evolving in real time
November 21, 2021 Updated: November 21, 2021


Peng Shuai’s staged public appearances are a new version of Beijing’s forced televised confessions.

Peng has almost certainly been either placed under house arrest, or taken into China’s RSDL (residential surveillance at a designated location) system for disappearances at a secret jail. And Chinese state-run media’s release of a purported letter from her, followed by social media posts and staged public appearances, show Beijing’s desperate attempts to guide public opinion and strike back against criticism.

You do not accuse a former Politburo Standing Committee member of anything, let alone sexual assault, without consequence. Furthermore, you do not dare raise the #MeToo issue in a country where sexual misconduct is rampant, including within the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Yet to arrest a renowned athlete in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics would have been a bad move for the CCP.

Instead, Peng has either been placed under house arrest, whether informally or via the legal mechanism called residential surveillance (RS), or joined the ranks of at least 50,000 people who have been targeted via the RSDL system for disappearances since it was put into place in 2013. Most victims are unknown or rarely receive media attention, with some few exceptions such as renowned human rights lawyers Wang Yu and Wang Quanzhang, celebrity Fan Bingbing, and business mogul Jack Ma.

We know Peng is in custody. The last week has been a public relations disaster for the CCP, with no sign of letting up. Had she been free, she would have been marshaled out, at any cost, to settle this drama.

The attempts by the CCP to show that Peng is not facing consequences for her allegations, and attempts to mollify growing international criticism, appear increasingly desperate. What started with a letter, followed by a repost of purported social media posts, has been followed by releasing videos of her in a restaurant—in what appears to be a badly stage-managed setting. Most recently, she, like Jack Ma before her, appeared in a professional setting, none of which has dispelled growing unease about Chinese repression and Peng’s own safety.

It may be odd to think of someone in custody, or worse, disappeared into RSDL, when at the same time such public appearances are being made. It is not an unusual situation, and there is a long history of it. Until recently, Beijing would counter foreign criticism by having people appear in what is now known as forced TV confessions, aired by CGTN—the same Party media that has released most of the above information about Peng. Many of these forced confessions were actually recorded by victims in China’s secret RSDL jails, where they are held incommunicado. They were simply taken out for stage-managed activities—to be used as tools, as needed—before being brought back into custody. It’s all scripted from beginning to end, with Chinese media and journalists often working together with the authorities.

If it wasn’t for the fact that Safeguard Defenders (the NGO I lead) and other rights groups have forced China Global Television Network (CGTN) to stop airing televised confessions—a form of political terror either targeted at an individual or the community he/she represents—Peng would have already been on TV. However, as more and more countries have investigated and taken CGTN down for broadcasting such outrageous contents that violate basic human rights, such a forced televised confession is no longer possible. Instead, we have seen a letter and social media postings allegedly from Peng and staged public appearances—and we are likely to see more charades as criticism grows.

What we are witnessing right now is the CCP testing new methods, rather desperately as time is against it, in countering criticism over Peng’s whereabouts. So far, the attempts have all but failed. Perhaps next she will appear in an Oprah-esque interview on CGTN, or make a phone or video call to the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), with a script prepared for her. Regardless, as far as this drama is concerned, this is the beginning, not the end.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Peter Dahlin
Peter Dahlin is the founder of the NGO Safeguard Defenders and the co-founder of the Beijing-based Chinese NGO China Action (2007–2016). He is the author of “Trial By Media,” and contributor to “The People’s Republic of the Disappeared.” He lived in Beijing from 2007, until detained and placed in a secret jail in 2016, subsequently deported and banned. Prior to living in China, he worked for the Swedish government with gender equality issues, and now lives in Madrid, Spain.