Peng Shuai serves against Monica Niculescu of Romania during their women’s singles match at the China Open tournament in Beijing in October 2017. Peng’s safety and freedom are raising concern across the world, and rightly so. Photo: AP
Shirley Ze Yu
Shirley Ze Yu

How Peng Shuai’s fate underscores China’s global legitimacy challenge

  • Despite its vaccine donations and firm commitments to reduce carbon emissions, China is still struggling to win the world’s trust
  • As it takes on more global responsibilities, it must overcome the scepticism and show it is a responsible partner
Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai’s recent appearances will not convince some that she is safe and free. She showed up at a tennis event, held a Zoom call with the International Olympic Committee chairman and was featured in a restaurant rendezvous. All this led to more questions over whether she did so freely.

Let’s imagine for a moment that Peng is happy and free. How could she express it so the rest of the world would believe it?

She could set up a Twitter account and tweet “Hey, I am safe and free”, but some would still challenge that it was not written by her or of her free will. She could initiate a call with World Tennis Association chairman Steve Simon, but there would be questions about whether she made the call freely.

As frustrated as the West is, China probably feels the same. Distrust of the Chinese government has increasingly become entrenched. All our intellectual reasoning is instinctively led by our moral compass.

I do not want to speculate on Peng’s freedom. If she is the victim of a Chinese “House of Cards”, think of the many more Chinese women who are at risk but don’t dare say so. As a Chinese woman, I sympathise with Peng. Her safety and freedom are causing grave concern across the world, and rightly so.


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WTA suspends tournaments in China over Beijing’s ‘silencing’ of tennis pro Peng Shuai
Beyond Peng’s freedom, China faces another crisis – a global crisis of trust. China has fallen into what is known as a “ Tacitus trap”. The term, named for the Roman historian, describes the fate of a government that has lost the public’s trust and is hated no matter what it does.
President Xi Jinping has warned that China faces three possible traps – the Tacitus trap, the Thucydides trap and the middle-income trap. Invoking the Tacitus trap was meant to warn Communist Party elites who are comfortable with corruption that the party’s disciplinary actions will uproot them to restore trust. Today, Beijing has not lost the trust of the Chinese people but, rather, that of some of its largest economic partners.
Xi has announced China will donate an additional 1 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses to Africa. For Africa to reach its target of vaccinating 60 to 70 per cent of its population, it needs at least 1.6 billion doses. Adding the 600 million doses China had already pledged to Africa, the continent’s basic immunity is within reach.
In comparison, the United States has donated 77.7 million doses to Africa and the Middle East combined. Despite the significance of its vaccine donations to Africa, China has been criticised for its vaccine diplomacy and the efficacy of its vaccines.


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China has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Meanwhile, the US – the world’s second-largest carbon emitter – has neither secured Congressional support nor provided a firm commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions.
India, the third-largest carbon emitter, has pledged to reach carbon neutrality in 50 years as it slowly walks to its net-zero target. Despite pledging to reach carbon neutrality 10 years earlier than India and making a firmer commitment than the US, only China faced sharp criticism during the UN climate change conference in Glasgow.
China’s Tacitus trap with the West is not about a deficit of good deeds but, rather, a deficit of good faith. It is in China’s interest to earn the trust of the West as it needs the world – particularly the developed world – to reach its goal of doubling the size of China’s economy by 2035.
China’s current economic growth strategy incorporates strong elements of opening up. Vice-Premier Liu He said during a Europe-China virtual forum that China would further open its markets to the world. China also wants to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a high-standard free trade agreement in the Pacific.


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Australia holds veto power over China’s accession to the pact, though. China’s punitive trade measures against Australia were meant to show it and other middle powers the damage that comes from opposing China, but so far the middle powers have been more resilient than expected while the superpower has been more fragile.
Economic coercion helps no one, including the superpower. China has suffered blackouts since it banned coal imports from Australia. A more pragmatic China would instead switch to restoring relations with Australia with an eye towards the long-term benefits.
China has also become a new terrorist target. The US departure from Afghanistan has left China with a wealth of natural resource deposits but also a security vacuum. China must protect its interests in Afghanistan and Xinjiang, as well as along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor with no one else to rely on as a security guarantor.

Will the world trust China? It is going to assume more global responsibilities in the future, whether out of goodwill or necessity. As China does, it will also enter a larger fight for global legitimacy.

Peng Shuai’s freedom matters, as does the well-being of 1.3 billion Africans. For now, their fate is tied to a China still trying to be seen as a trustworthy partner.

Shirley Ze Yu is a political economist and a senior practitioner fellow with the Ash Center of Harvard Kennedy School