China’s Disappeared: How Beijing Silences Critics

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China’s Disappeared: How Beijing Silences Critics

The Chinese government has used a variety of tactics to silence its critics. Could international attention on tennis player Peng Shuai’s case push Beijing to change?

The stunning protests by the Women’s Tennis Association against the Chinese government’s secret restrictions on tennis star Peng Shuai have belatedly focused international attention on Beijing’s practice of disappearing nonconforming citizens. Although many countries have experienced mysterious and sometimes fatal disappearances, the Chinese government has developed this technique for silencing people into an art form. 

How has the Chinese government silenced critics? 

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The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has many ways of administratively disappearing those it distrusts. It has punished tens of millions of people through its formal, but crude and opaque, criminal justice system. The mass repression of Uyghurs and other Muslims in the Xinjiang region is only the most recent example. In addition, the CCP banished many people to forced-labor camps the party qualified as non-criminal reeducation. Although this practice was ostensibly abolished in 2013, similar abuses persist, as also demonstrated by the situation in Xinjiang. And tens of thousands of individuals are illegally constrained, for varying periods, to what is basically house arrest, unable to speak or move freely. 

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In addition, millions of party members have been subjected to the widely feared practice of secret detention, investigation, and torture. This system has been revised under a legal fig leaf as part of President Xi Jinping’s effort to give lawful appearance to all totalitarian controls and enforce unquestioning discipline among the party’s ninety-three million members.

Which prominent individuals have been disappeared or silenced? 

Peng Shuai’s case—in which she was not seen in public for two weeks after accusing a former top CCP official of sexual assault—is certainly not the first time that the Chinese government has made headlines for disappearing prominent individuals. And CCP disappearance has taken many forms. 

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai tosses a tennis ball in the air.
Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai serves a ball. Edgar Su/Reuters

The most famous example took place in plain sight. After Premier Zhao Ziyang was deposed days before the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, he spent his last sixteen years isolated from public life in the party’s headquarters.

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When repeated torture, criminal sentences, and harassment of family members starting in 2009 failed to silence well-known human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, he was forced back to his native village and never heard from again. When billionaire entrepreneur Xiao Jianhua, who helped make the fortunes of many of the party’s elite, refused to be enticed back to the mainland from Hong Kong, he was kidnapped in 2017 and has been held in the mainland ever since, without legal pretense. When artist Ai Weiwei showed public contempt for CCP repression, he was subjected to eighty-one days of incommunicado “residential surveillance at a designated location” in 2011 for ostensible investigation of tax liabilities. Intense international pressure helped secure his release. When law professor Teng Biao disregarded warnings to stop his human rights activities, he was repeatedly kidnapped, confined in “safe houses,” and tortured before choosing exile over imprisonment in 2012. 

Legal scholar Xu Zhangrun was ousted from his professorship and forced into shunned isolation for his devastating critiques of Xi, but he has not been detained or physically assaulted. Liu Xia, widow of the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, was long silenced during her husband’s imprisonment and, because of threats against family still in China, has remained muzzled even after fleeing abroad.   

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Whitney Duan, who with her then-husband Desmond Shum made a fortune in business deals in China with the discreet participation of then-Premier Wen Jiabao’s wife, was disappeared in 2017. (After the couple’s break-up, Shum left China with their young son, but Duan remained.) For four years, she was out of contact with anyone. Only on the eve of the publication of Shum’s book about their misadventures was she able to telephone him, while obviously under restraint from her captors, in a vain effort to halt publication. 

Will international outrage over Peng push Beijing to change? 

Beijing’s efforts to give Peng the appearance of freedom demonstrate its sensitivity to the growing international pressure: A UN human rights official has called for a full and transparent investigation. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the Joe Biden administration is “deeply concerned.” Only the International Olympic Committee, openly worried that plans for the Beijing Olympics in February could “spin out of control,” has been able to speak with Peng, but only for a strangely limited conversation that has generated international scorn.   

Even before this ongoing episode, the United States was likely to impose a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics, which would prevent U.S. officials from attending the games. Some participating athletes were already likely to protest, and certain corporate sponsors were being called on to boycott the games.  

But even with increasing international pressure, it seems unlikely that Beijing will change. As Peng’s explosive complaint noted, seeking justice in today’s China continues to be, as the Chinese saying goes, as hopeless as “throwing an egg against a stone.”

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