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China's credibility has taken a severe beating both at home and abroad. That's taking a toll on its ambitions to become a global leader, says Rodion Ebbighausen.
The latest interview with the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who in November accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her, has done little to shed further light on the matter. She appears unfocused and distracted in the video.
The case is just one example that shows how bad the credibility of the People's Republic of China (PRC) is. For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it's a problem that extends far beyond sports.
The PRC claims to have created the democracy of the 21st century. Liberal democracy in the United States and Europe, which is threatened by populism and instability, is being replaced by a technocratic, authoritarian democracy that creates prosperity and security efficiently and on the basis of data, according to propaganda from Beijing.
To achieve such as "people's democracy," as it's called in the official jargon, the CCP has designated the quote attributed to Lenin "trust is good, control is better" as itsraison d'etre.
The CCP controls the media — through rigid censorship; an army of civil servants who post, like, share on behalf of the CCP; and through social media such as Weibo, WeChat and other outlets that were created specifically for the domestic market and are tightly controlled. As a result of this overbearing control, Peng Shuai's posting disappeared in no time. Not that the censorship caused much outcry: In China, this MeToo case is simply not an issue.
The party also controls the economy, it controls the courts, it controls science and education. Ultimately, all walks of life are monitored right down to the last detail.
As a result, the CCP acts against Chinese citizens. It subjects hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uyghurs to reeducation in camps; it uses police force and legal means to silence the democracy movement in Hong Kong — and then holds mock elections.
Notwithstanding that total grip on control, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that ultimately there is no real control, because no one controls those who exert the control. The CCP and Xi Jinping are untouchable.
In contrast to a true democracy, in which the principle of the separation of powers ensures that the various state organs check and balance each other and in which elections provide a real choice, there is only one highest authority in China: the 25-member Politburo, which, under Xi's leadership dictates the fate of 1.4 billion people.
The growing distrust is a result of the party's abundance of power and a lack of real control. The MeToo case is just one example.
Internationally, the Chinese system is less attractive than ever among the 17 leading industrialized nations, according to a 2021 study by the PEW Research Center. "Large majorities in most of the leading industrialized nations view China largely negatively," the study said. China's hopes of convincing the world of the superiority of its own system based on major economic successes have failed.
US political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term "soft power" as an effective tool to achieve global standing and leadership. In other words, acquiring the ability to convince other nations of one's own position on the basis of cultural and social prowess. First and foremost, this requires credibility. But credibility cannot be forced and certainly cannot be replaced by control.
Sport can be one way of winning over others. The officials in Beijing, who successfully secured the 2022 Winter Olympics, know this. But it's not enough to put on a perfectly staged show. The athletes, spectators and the population must do so of their own free will in order to present a credible image. Sex can be coerced, love cannot.
This story was originally written in German.