Tennis player Peng Shuai, “X-Men” actress Fan Bingbing, and Alibaba founder Jack Ma were all favorites of the Chinese government, demonstrating that Beijing’s influence extended to Hollywood and Wall Street.
What the three have in common is that they all vanished without a trace after defying Beijing or embarrassing the country.
This tactic, combined with a massive, unopposed crackdown on lawyers, activists, and state critics, appears to be Beijing’s go-to strategy for combating disloyalty and preventing rebellion.
Fan went missing for three months in 2018 after it was revealed that she had cheated the government out of millions of dollars in taxes, only to return with a heartfelt apology. Ma disappeared for the same period in late 2020 after criticizing China’s unwillingness to innovate, only to return to say he had been “studying and thinking.”
Meanwhile, Peng has not been heard from since November 2, when she accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her.
These cases, like many others, follow the same plot: When a high-profile individual brings China into disrepute, they disappear for weeks, then either reappear to apologize or never return to public life.
“They keep these people and try to work out some sort of arrangement,” Konstantinos Tsimonis, a lecturer in Chinese society at King’s College London’s Lau China Institute, told newspapers. “I think that’s what we had with Jack Ma, and I think that’s what we’ll get with Peng Shuai,” he said, adding that the Chinese government is likely thinking, “We want to make sure you don’t talk anymore, so we don’t have a reemergence of the #MeToo movement in the public sphere.”
Tsimonis also mentioned the 2011 disappearance of dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who was held without charge for 81 days.
Because of the complexities of its legal system and its ability to suppress information on the internet, China can get away with doing this to celebrities and countless others.
“This case has exposed for yet another large global audience the truly arbitrary nature of power wielded by the Chinese government and party,” she said of Peng. “This happens all the time; it’s the norm rather than the exception.”
Peng and Ma’s disappearances were unsurprising in some ways, because criticism of the country and its officials is effectively an attack on the Communist Party.
In his remarks, Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies, agreed. “It is simply unacceptable for a young female celebrity to accuse a former PBSC of a sexual crime, as it may set a precedent for others to be similarly challenged,” he said, referring to the Communist Party’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee.
Peng is well-known on a global scale, so she, like Ma and Fan, may resurface.
Fan is one of those who apologized in order to regain their freedom.
After China ordered Fan to repay 479 million yuan ($70 million) in 2019, she apologized profusely on the microblogging site Weibo, saying she was “deeply ashamed.” Her social media posts have since taken on a nationalist tone.
Nonetheless, some disappearances in China remain unsolved.
In August, the actress Zhao Wei abruptly vanished, and Chinese streaming sites removed her TV shows and films. Though no reason was given for her disappearance, Chinese state media — which can be considered an extension of the state — reported that she was “surrounded by lawsuits” and that she had been barred from trading in China’s securities markets in 2017 for unspecified “market violations.”
Ren Zhiqiang, the former chairman of the property behemoth Huayuan, is another member of China’s elite who has vanished. Ren launched a thinly veiled attack on Chinese President Xi Jinping in a March 2020 essay, comparing him to “a clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing to be emperor.” Ren was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party in June, and he was later sentenced to 18 years in prison on corruption charges.
On Wednesday, the Chinese state broadcaster CGTN published an English-language email purportedly from Peng, in which she retracted the accusation against Zhang and stated that she was safe.
The email has not been verified, and instead of assuaging people’s fears, it has raised new ones about Peng’s safety. “Her allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency, and without censorship,” said Steve Simon, chairman of the Women’s Tennis Association, in a statement on Thursday.