China’s most prominent tennis star is gone and it’s a sign of what the future may hold

A Chinese tennis star missing from public view is the latest move by the country’s ruling Communist Party to reassert its centrality in official social status and make sure that public figures don’t become idols for the country’s people.

Peng Shuai, China’s second-ranked women’s tennis player and a rising national celebrity, hasn’t been seen in public since July 29.

The enigmatic Peng’s disappearance came just before the Communist Party’s central committee started its five-yearly national congress, the first time in nearly three decades that so many leading party officials have been sidelined for a period of time.

The congress, which lasts for three weeks, is believed to be a formality to seat party-controlled bodies and in a sense, a formality to shove new people into positions that state-run media characterize as the “battle-ready troops” of the party.

What has become a furor in China has many Beijing watchers assuming that the culture of the country’s elite is changing quickly in the wake of Xi Jinping’s elevation to the presidency and since the suspicious death in police custody of a popular cult figure, the artist Sun Kailiang. Some of Sun’s belongings found on him when he died were found to carry symbols of the Communist Party of China and the military.

Such moves are being viewed as an attack on China’s unapologetic cult of personality, and a way to get rid of those who stood up to Mao and idolized Lenin, as well as a way to appease an enormous public that believes it has been left high and dry because it hasn’t fulfilled a promise to deliver central leadership.

China’s governing elites are known for keeping tightly controlled tight-lipped to deflect public anger. At the last national party congress in 2012, protests hit the streets of Beijing, with people calling for a third term for Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. The military held parallel parades to emphasize Xi’s return.

Zhao Guoqiang, a professor at the Guangzhou Institutes of Urban Research, said that the absence of Peng, and of other celebrities in the country, is probably tied to Xi’s control.

“For political reasons, the recent absence of Peng Shuai is a sign that the Communist Party Central Committee has so far been successful in conducting a social reshuffle before the annual National People’s Congress meeting,” Zhao said.

The party’s silence about Peng could be indicative of the party’s desire to reassert its status. The hard power of the party often comes down to class power, not strength of ideas or command, Zhao said.

Wang Shuai, the best friend of Peng’s, told the state news agency Xinhua last week that Peng’s disappearance was never revealed in advance. The pair became friends when they were young, and Peng grew up in a country where the use of cellphones and foreign media shows, like the games “World Cup,” get a “measure of respect,” she said.

Xinhua said a Chinese government spokesman had said authorities are doing everything to find Peng, and local police are contacting agents in the country, in Russia and Switzerland, where he may have gone.

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