The 'disappearance' of tennis player Peng Shuai is a reminder that China is a fragile superpower – ABC News

The 'disappearance' of tennis player Peng Shuai is a reminder that China is a fragile superpower
How can a nation so powerful, so demanding of respect, and so quick to intimidate others be apparently so afraid of a female tennis player?
The "disappearance" of Peng Shuai tells us so much about the Chinese Communist Party and its Achilles heel. I write "disappearance" because we just don't know.
That's the point: "truth" is hard to find in China. There is no freedom of expression, no free and open media, no rule of law as we understand it. The Communist Party determines what "truth" is.
What we do know is that Peng published an anguished post about her relationship with former Chinese vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli. Detailing their decade-long affair, she accused the senior official — 40 years older than her — of forcing her to have sex.
Then the tennis star went quiet. The post was removed. Her fellow tennis players and world tennis officials demanded proof of her safety.
Videos have since appeared apparently showing her safe and well. She also spoke to International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, assuring him she was "free".
But is she? Is she being pressured? Is she being threatened?
We cannot know. But if history and my own personal experience is any guide, we can be sure Peng Shuai is under enormous pressure.
What we do know is that China "disappears" people who speak out or cross the line. Journalists, lawyers, activists are locked up or put under house arrest with no recourse.
Australian journalist Cheng Lei has been detained for more than a year, arrested on allegations of supplying state secrets. She is separated from her family and her fate remains unknown.
Peng Shuai disappeared after making an explosive #MeToo claim about a top government official on social media. She joins a growing list of those who have gone missing.
When I reported from China for CNN it was common for people I interviewed to be intimidated, threatened, sometimes detained themselves. My colleagues and I were threatened. We were physically attacked on several occasions by police in plain clothes and detained and questioned.
If Chinese censors didn't like our reporting — which was almost all the time — our stories would be blacked out on television. 
China can't be a great nation if it cannot trust its own people. 
More than a decade ago China watcher Susan Shirk dubbed the country "the fragile superpower". China, she wrote, was "strong abroad but weak at home".
Shirk said the regime lacked legitimacy. This vulnerability made it volatile and potentially dangerous. Shirk wrote that she feared China could "behave rashly in a crisis with Japan or Taiwan and bring it into military conflict with the United States".
Since then the stakes have only got higher. Xi Jinping has doubled down on authoritarianism. He has crushed democracy protests in Hong Kong, locked up Uyghur Muslims in what's been described as a genocide, erased dissent inside the party and changed the constitution, clearing the way to make himself president for life.
He has threatened Taiwan with war. He has frozen out countries like Australia and used trade as a weapon. He believes history is on his side. 
Yet this same apparently all-powerful leader is also fearful. He is suspicious of rivals. He is hyper-sensitive to criticism. He is locked down in Beijing, afraid to leave the country even to attend the recent COP26 climate conference.
Xi models himself on the great revolutionary leader, Mao Zedong. Like Mao, absolute power is making Xi paranoid. Mao could not trust even those he held close. He turned the country upside down in a cultural revolution because he trusted only chaos. 
Xi demands respect. He wants the world to recognise — and acquiesce — to Chinese power. He wants people at home to see him as the great leader who completed what Mao started. He wants to realise the China Dream: Return it to the apex of global power and reverse a century or more of national humiliation.
Yet right now, a young female tennis player is revealing the folly of China's claim to greatness. Until she is allowed to speak openly, publish what she wishes, appear and travel as she likes, then she stands as a reminder that China is indeed a fragile superpower.
Would Joe Biden be afraid and silence Serena Williams if she dared write something critical or reveal embarrassing secrets? Let's not forget Bill Clinton was impeached because of an inquiry into an affair he had, yet Monica Lewinsky did not disappear. In Australia, someone as outspoken as Nick Kyrgios is free to say, write, do as he likes.
That's what freedom is — the freedom to think or write without fear.
Now, China is not a democracy. It doesn't have our traditions of freedom. But Xi Jinping believes his system of government is superior. He believes he has a better model. Why, then, should Peng Shuai's revelations now scare him and the powerful Communist Party so?
Xi is a great student of philosophy and Chinese history; he would know well the Chinese proverb: Respect out of fear is never genuine.
Stan Grant presents China Tonight on Monday at 9.35pm on ABC TV, and Tuesday at 8pm on  ABC News Channel.
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