Why is the Chinese Government Terrified of Tennis Player Peng Shuai?

by | Nov 24, 2021 | Asia

The disappearance of WTA tennis player, Peng Shuai, demonstrates that dictators cannot even tolerate a single critic.

In a previous article (“The Mind of the Dictator,” Capitalism Magazine, June 17, 2021) I noted that given that dictatorships were ruled by brute force rather than the voluntary consent of voters (as in a genuine two or more-party system and a pro-rights Constitution), they cannot tolerate criticism. They desperately fear what might happen if they were to allow freedom of speech and the press. Dictators need the pretense of a moral sanction based on the fact that their legitimacy is never questioned. They cannot even tolerate a single critic, because doing so could open the door to a flood of additional critics, which could ultimately bring the government down. Dictators always have a lot to hide, including massive corruption, persecution of critics, and murder.

A case in point is the world-renowned tennis player, Peng Shuai, who recently stated publicly that she had been sexually abused by a high-ranking Communist Party official. Not surprisingly, she immediately disappeared from view, was made incommunicado, and was confined except for an official report that she was “well.” China has a population of over a billion people. Consider how morally insecure a government is that cannot even tolerate one complaining athlete. (Some months ago, a wealthy CEO expressed disagreement with one of the government’s economic policies, then largely disappeared from view, and has hardly said a word in public since.)

By way of comparison:  Biden got 81 million votes and Trump 74 million in our presidential election. Both parties attack one another verbally just about every day. They did this before and have done it ever since the election. In surveys, close to half the population disapproves of our current president. The president can tolerate 74 million political enemies, but the Chinese dictator cannot even tolerate one. This inability is a confession of moral bankruptcy. Dictators use force because they cannot defend their policies through rational persuasion.

There is a psychological aspect here too. A dictator’s self-esteem is based on the power of force and the conviction that everyone should and will obey him without question. Real or implied disagreement represents defiance and can pose a threat to the dictator’s illusion of omnipotence.

China is the most dangerous, most imperialist country in the world today. As evidence, consider its forcible takeover of a tiny, defenseless country, Tibet; the placing of large numbers of armored troops near India’s border; the seizure of islands that did not belong to it (on which it built military bases) in the South China sea; the bullying of countries in the region (e.g., violating their fishing rights); threatening ships from any country that enters that sea; and constant threats to South Korea and Japan. Further, let us not forget the forcible takeover of Hong Kong in violation of the 99-year agreement that allowed for “two systems” after it became clear that too many Hong Kong residents wanted one system: political freedom.

It is notable that the current dictator of China is modeling himself on Chairman Mao Tse-tung. In Mao, The Unknown Story, scholars Jung Chang and Jon Halliday estimate that Mao was responsible for the deaths of 70 million people—dwarfing even Hitler and Stalin. We know that dictators constantly rewrite history. Depending on the “needs” of the moment, they will say that previous dictators “made some [unspecified] errors” or were justified by the need to defeat enemies. Dictators routinely blame any type of failure or unrest on “outsiders.” Stalin is viewed as a hero for helping Russia defeat the Nazis, but it is rarely mentioned that this aspect of World War II was not about a fight for freedom but a fight for slavery—a battle to the death between two totalitarian dictatorships.

Chang and Halliday note that Mao seemed to genuinely “love” the disgraced (deposed) Richard Nixon and later invited him to visit China. There can be little doubt that Nixon’s earlier “Shanghai Gesture” (Ayn Rand Letter, March 27, April 10, and April 24, 1972) had given Mao moral support. One wonders whether Nixon’s recognition gave China the impetus to enter the modern world. Their resurgence, aided by embracing partial capitalism (in contradiction to Communist philosophy), gave China the wealth to build up its armed forces, including the manufacture of scores of atomic bombs and missiles, and the ability to threaten Taiwan, a free country, with invasion on a daily basis. The world would have been much safer place if China had remained backward.

But what China fears at the deepest root is not our military (though we do need to make them fear it) but our political philosophy. The concept of individual rights is the main threat to, and implacable foe of, all dictatorships and must be defended to the last person standing.

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Edwin A. Locke is Dean's Professor of Leadership and Motivation Emeritus at the R.H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. He is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), the American Psychological Association, the Society for Industrial & Organizational Behavior, and the Academy of Management. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (Society for I/O Psychology), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Management (OB Division), the J. M. Cattell Award (APS) and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Academy of Management. He, with Gary Latham, has spent over 50 years developing Goal Setting Theory, ranked No. 1 in importance among 73 management theories. He has published over 320 chapters, articles, reviews and notes, and has authored or edited 13 books including (w. Kenner) The Selfish Path to Romance, (w. Latham) New Directions in Goal Setting and Task Performance, and The Prime Movers: Traits of the Great Wealth Creators. He is internationally known for his research on motivation, job satisfaction, leadership, and other topics. His website is: EdwinLocke.com

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