On 2 November, the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai posted a long message on the social media site Weibo, accusing China’s former vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault. As soon as the post went live, it became the highest-profile #MeToo case in China, and one of the ruling Chinese Communist party’s largest public relations crises in recent history. Within about 20 minutes, the post had been removed. All mentions of the post were then scrubbed from the Chinese internet. No references to the story appeared in the Chinese media. In the days that followed, Peng made no further statements and did not appear in public. Outside China, however, as other tennis stars publicly expressed concerns for her safety, Peng’s apparent disappearance
became one of the biggest news stories in the world.
It wasn’t long before Hu Xijin stepped into the story. Hu is the editor of the Global Times, a chest-thumpingly nationalistic tabloid sometimes described as “China’s Fox News”. In recent years, he has become the most influential Chinese propagandist in the west – a constant presence on Twitter and in the international media, always on hand to defend the Communist party line, no matter the topic.
On 19 November, he tweeted to his 450,000
followers that he had confirmed through his own sources – he didn’t say who they were – that Peng was alive and well. Over the next two days, he posted videos
of Peng at a restaurant and signing autographs