Peng Shuai’s accusation pierced the privileged citadel of Chinese politics
Before Zhang Gaoli was accused of sexually abusing a tennis champion, he appeared to embody the qualities that the Chinese Communist Party values in officials: strict, disciplined, and impeccably loyal to the leader of the day.
From running an oil refinery, he had risen to a number of senior posts along the fast-growing coast of China in an effort to avoid the scandals and controversy that befell other conspicuously ambitious politicians. He became known, if at all, for his monotonous impersonality. When he entered China’s top leadership, he urged people to look for anything that was wrong with his behavior.
“Sharp, reserved, taciturn”, summarized one of the few profiles of him in the Chinese media. His interests included books, chess, and tennis, according to the Xinhua News Agency.
Now, the accusation of Peng Shuai, the professional tennis player, has caught Mr. Zhang’s personal life internationally, making him a symbol of a political system that values secrecy and control over open accountability. The allegation raises questions about the extent to which Chinese officials are carrying their professed ideals of the integrity of a clean life into their heavily guarded homes.
“Zhang embodied the image of the bland apparatchik that the party worked hard to cultivate,” said Jude Blanchette, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Ms. Peng’s report – that Mr. Zhang forced her to have sex during a year-long on-off relationship – has not been confirmed. The vigorous efforts of the Chinese authorities to suppress any mention of the matter suggest that there is little chance that Mr. Zhang will ever be publicly held accountable, even if it clears his name. Neither Ms. Peng nor Mr. Zhang have made public comments since their post was published.
“Unfortunately, one has to imagine that such abuses are not uncommon in an opaque and patriarchal system of uncontrolled power,” added Blanchette.
When Ms. Peng, 35, published her allegation on the popular social media platform Weibo on the night of November 2nd, she abducted readers into the spoiled private life of the Communist Party elite.
In Ms. Peng’s mail to Mr. Zhang, she said the two had met more than a decade before when their careers began and his careers were nearing their peak. He was then the head of the communist party in Tianjin, a northern port city, and he told her that his political position made it impossible for him to divorce his wife.
Mr. Zhang was said to have broken off contact with her after rising to the highest level in the Communist Party, the Politburo Standing Committee, a position he held for five years. During that time, he was tasked with overseeing China’s initial preparations for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which are now overshadowed by excitement.
About three years ago, after Mr. Zhang retired, he called the head of a tennis academy to summon Ms. Peng to play tennis with him at a party-owned hotel in Beijing called Kangming, which houses retired officials to contribute.
Later that day, she said he forced her to have sex in his house. They resumed a relationship, but he insisted that she stay secret. She had to change trains to enter the Beijing government building where he lives, she wrote. He warned her not to tell anyone, not even her mother.
With seldom a word or a hair out of place, Mr. Zhang seemed an unlikely protagonist in a scandal that raged around the world. He belongs to a generation of functionaries who rose after the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution and who adopted the selfless ethos of collective leadership under Hu Jintao, who preceded the country’s current leader, Xi Jinping.
Mr. Zhang, who turned 75 the day before Ms. Peng’s post appeared, was born in a fishing village in Fujian Province. According to official sources, his father died when he was a child. He began studying economics at Xiamen University in Fujian, but his education was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution when Mao Zedong largely closed university classes.
In 1970 he was deployed on oil fields in southern China, where, according to official information, he was lifting bags of cement for the first time.
Within years he rose to management. When Deng Xiaoping and other leaders led China into an era of market reform, Mr. Zhang became one of those officials whose economic expertise and a little bit of college education made them eligible for promotion. He perfected the methodical, sober manner of a cadre who had sunk their lives into the party hierarchy.
He was party leader of Shenzhen, the city next to Hong Kong that Deng propagated as a showpiece of China’s newly discovered economic dynamism. He won the favor of Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, and was in charge of Shandong, a province full of ports and factories, in the early 2000s.
In 2007, he was promoted to oversee Tianjin, the provincial-level port whose fortunes had declined while other coastal areas were booming. Mr. Zhang drove plans to convert a dreary industrial area of Tianjin into a modern business district – a “new Manhattan” – that would attract multinational corporations and wealthy residents.
This project stalled due to debt and inflated expectations, but Mr. Zhang rose to central leadership in 2012. He became the deputy prime minister, practically deputy prime minister of China.
“I hope that all party members, officials, and the general public in this city will continue to exercise strict supervision over me,” said Mr. Zhang in 2012 when he left Tianjin for Beijing.
Mr. Zhang’s experience in managing large projects made him a safe couple for some of the initiatives Mr. Xi made his mark. He negotiated oil deals with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and promoted Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road initiative.
Mr. Zhang oversaw the early preparations for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. In 2016, he met with Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, when Mr. Bach was visiting the city.
It was Mr. Bach who held a video call with Ms. Peng on Sunday to reassure athletes and others who were concerned about her disappearance in the days after her post appeared.
At the beginning of Mr. Xi’s term in office, the state media began to see lurid reports of sexual offenses by officials, revelations intended to signal that he was serious about purifying the party.
Mr Xi’s priority now appears to be to ward off any scandalous smell that tarnishes the top echelons of the party. References to Ms. Peng’s account were almost deleted from the Internet in China. A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, suggested that Ms. Peng’s attention has become “vicious hype.” Official media have not shown or reported about Mr. Zhang since Ms. Peng went public; nor have they directly challenged their account.
“Even denying their allegations would be giving them a level of credibility that could not be taken back,” said Louisa Lim, a former journalist who worked in China for a long time and the author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia .
When Mr. Zhang retired in 2018, he disappeared from the public eye, as is common in Chinese politics. Retirement is often associated with perks such as quality health care, housing and travel within China, but also with some supervision.
“As soon as you retire, your movements will be reported to the party’s organizing department,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California who studies the party.
In her post, Ms. Peng appeared to indicate that she and Mr. Zhang recently had a disagreement and that he was “gone” as before. However, she wrote that she expected her report to have little impact on Mr. Zhang’s reputation.
“With your intelligence and your wits,” she wrote, “you’re sure to either deny it or blame me, or you could just play it cool.”
Claire Fu and Liu Yi contributed to the research.