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China

What happens when you “disappear”

Peng Shuai, right, was wheeled out for the cameras at a busy Beijing restaurant yesterday. Her appearance is welcome, says Sky’s Tom Cheshire, “but there’s something bizarre about these clips”

As a child, Peng Shuai was told by doctors that she’d never play tennis professionally because of a heart defect, says Luke Mintz in The Sunday Telegraph. Unperturbed, she underwent heart surgery and by 15 was part of the national tennis scene. Fighting off attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to take two-thirds of her earnings, by 27 she had won doubles titles at Wimbledon and the French Open. But on 2 November the 35-year-old described in a long blog how, years ago, she was forced into sex by a former vice president of the politburo, Zhang Gaoli, while a guard stood watch outside the door. The experience left her feeling, she said, “like a walking corpse”. Her post was wiped from the internet within minutes. Then Peng disappeared.

On Wednesday last week the Chinese state broadcaster CGTN released a statement it claimed had been written by Peng, reversing her claim of sexual assault and saying: “I’m not missing. I’ve just been resting.” But everything, says human rights activist Peter Dahlin, points towards a government programme known as RSDL: “residential surveillance at a designated location”. He should know; he was a victim of it. At 9.45pm on 3 January, 2016, there was an explosion at his door. Uniformed officers swarmed in, blindfolded Dahlin and his girlfriend, then drove them away. He was kept in a rectangular padded cell, watched at all times by two expressionless guards “who never spoke but recorded his every action”. He was interrogated, deprived of sleep and, despite the padding, unable to ignore the muffled screams from the floor above. After three weeks he was forced to confess to a series of crimes before being deported to Sweden. Dahlin says thousands of people disappear into RSDL every year. Peng is likely to be one of them.