Story behind Peng Shuai news hype

THE grand prize for the biggest media hype in recent years must go to the British-led media. Since Nov 3, when the Peng Shuai story first broke, foreign readers of The Guardian and BBC have been inundated with a flood of daily articles, focusing on her case and attempts to tie it up with what the papers identify as associated issues such as the charges of China’s crimes against humanity, alleged genocide in Xinjiang, use of slave labour, repressive policies in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and efforts to dominate the world beginning with the South China Sea.

Television coverage of the story with pictures of the tennis star and interviews with an array of commentators, including from the community of famous tennis players, and “in depth” analyses by armchair critics have kept the story hot and alive to a larger audience.

To be sure, the plight of Peng Shuai is newsworthy perhaps for a day or two, but what are the real reasons for making it hog and clog the global news coverage of these media outfits day after day during the past weeks?

The most important but not obvious objective with this story is to leverage on it and to manipulate it to deflect public attention towards their real target – China’s government. And from the number of inches – now reaching feet – of news columns given to it, the objective of this particular sustained anti-China narrative in reaching a wide readership appears to have succeeded.

Confirmation of success and the invigorated role of the Western media in being the handmaiden of war-mongering elements in Britain, the US and Australia can be seen in the way the Anglo Saxon governments have latched on to the Peng Shuai case to demonise further China’s record on human rights and media freedom and the Communist Party leadership. Besides making the Chinese government look bad, the case is being pushed to justify a diplomatic and larger boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympic games.

Although statements by the US, UK and Australian governments had initially demanded that China provide “verifiable evidence” of Peng Shuai’s whereabouts and well-being or suffer the diplomatic consequences, it is also clear that this campaign to tarnish China ahead of the Winter Olympics will continue whatever happens. If effective, the boycott of the winter games could serve as a body blow to Beijing’s international image.

Thus, recent publication of photos and videos of Peng Shuai at a tennis tournament in Beijing and at a restaurant, and the most recent statement by International Olympic Council president Thomas Bach that she had spoken to him for 30 minutes in a video call and assured him that she is safe and well, and would like to have her privacy respected, have had no effect in stopping the propaganda onslaught, which the papers’ editors must be congratulating themselves for initiating and sustaining.

China’s restrained response

The Chinese government’s response has been remarkably restrained on the Western media overkill on the Peng Shuai story. Initially, noting that it was not a diplomatic matter, the latest Beijing statement called on “some people [to] stop deliberately and maliciously hyping [the issue] up, let alone politicise [it].

Notwithstanding Beijing’s calm reaction, the Western media will continue to be deeply engaged in damaging China’s image at every possible opportunity with the immediate target right now, the Winter Olympics. However, this propaganda war, spearheaded by what was previously regarded as more open and independent media, is not doing the international community any favour or good by sensationalising and spinning stories aimed at arousing anti-China and anti-Chinese sentiments.

If the justification is the need for news stories to sell, there are many international and domestic concerns that they can cover. Besides homegrown scandals and other headline grabbing developments, the Tim Paine story, which broke after the Peng Shuai story with its graphic X-rated messages and images of parts of the anatomy, is guaranteed to titillate and sell well to readers all around the world.

And, if the intention as articulated in the BBC mission is “to act in the public interest” and “to provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them”, then coverage of news relating to the plight of thousands of political migrants refused entry to the UK and Europe; unresolved Brexit issues; resurgent Covid challenges; the new sleaze exposed in Boris Johnson’s leadership and the British parliament; and most recently the revelations of entrenched racist sentiments and structures in the white-dominated sporting organisations of Britain; are incomparably more important and newsworthy.

Perhaps, the objective by focusing on the negative aspects of China is also to provoke a hostile response from China’s state media which can then enable the Western media to retaliate with further negative reporting. Such a development, while useful in terms of selling the BBC and The Guardian reporting, will not serve the cause of peaceful coexistence or the interests of the public in the West and China.

China’s reaction in a tit-for-tat battle has not come about, although both sides of the ideological divide can play the same game. It has been postulated that the relative absence of a belligerent response from Beijing’s state media to the anti-China Western media is due to the weak and poor quality standards of China’s propaganda machinery as compared with the highly creative and experienced one of the West.

In fact, the Chinese handling of the story is not only ham-fisted. It has also exposed the limitations of a rigid top down political system that should not fear opening to the world in its handling of cases such as this. China’s overall achievements on women empowerment in fact stands up to those found in Western liberal democracies, despite the different roads taken.

Whatever the reason, the Western media should move on from the Peng Shuai story to more urgent and significant developments and stories in their home countries and abroad.

South China Sea: Potential World War III battle ground

And if it is a big China story that the BBC and The Guardian editors are intent on reporting, the two papers and other Western news agencies would do well to undertake an investigation and report on what really happened with the alleged “collision” of the USS Connecticut in the South China Sea. This story, with its backdrop in the South China Sea, where US naval power is pitted against China’s naval defence had been briefly covered as an accident which involved the nuclear submarine kissing an “unexpected sea mountain” obstacle that caused it serious damage.

However, other versions have emerged which have been suppressed in the Western media. One recent version provides an as yet unconfirmed account that relates the USS Connecticut’s engagement in an encounter with China’s navy, near China’s coastline. Such an incident raises not only the possibility of nuclear discharge which will pollute the South China Sea but also runs the risk of precipitating a larger and potential world war beginning in our part of the world.

Hype and hypocrisy are often two sides of the same coin. BBC and The Guardian editors should prove that they are not just being media and racist dogs of war in their China coverage.

Lim Teck Ghee’s Another Take is aimed at demystifying social orthodoxy.