Peng Shuai's accusation pierced the privileged citadel of Chinese politics

Before Zhang Gaoli was engulfed in accusations of sexually assaulting a tennis champion, he seemed to embody the qualities the Chinese C...


Before Zhang Gaoli was engulfed in accusations of sexually assaulting a tennis champion, he seemed to embody the qualities the Chinese Communist Party values ​​in public officials: austere, disciplined, and impeccably loyal to the then leader.

He had climbed steadily from operate an oil refinery to a succession of managerial positions along the rapidly growing Chinese coast, thus avoiding scandals and controversial who shot down other ambitious flashy politicians. He became known, if for anything, for his monotonous impersonality. As he entered the top leadership of China, he urged people to look for anything that was wrong with his behavior.

“Stern, discreet, taciturn”, sums up one of the rare profiles of him in Chinese media. His interest, Xinhua News Agency said, included books, chess and tennis.

Now, the allegation of Peng Shuai, the professional tennis player, has thrown Mr. Zhang’s privacy under international scrutiny, making him the symbol of a political system that values ​​secrecy and control. of open accountability. The allegation raises questions about the extent to which Chinese authorities are carrying their stated ideals of clean life integrity into their heavily guarded homes.

“Zhang embodies the image of the bland apparatchik that the party has worked hard to cultivate,” said Jude Blanchette, researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Ms. Peng’s account – that Mr. Zhang forced her to have sex during an intermittent relationship for several years – has not been corroborated. Vigorous efforts by Chinese authorities to hush up any mention of the case suggest that there is little chance that Mr. Zhang will ever be held to account to the public, even if it could erase his name. Neither Ms. Peng nor Mr. Zhang have made any public comment since her post appeared.

“Unfortunately, one would have to imagine that in an opaque and patriarchal system of uncontrolled power, this kind of abuse is not uncommon,” added Mr. Blanchette.

When Ms. Peng, 35, posted her accusation on the popular social media platform Weibo on the night of November 2, she took readers into the wealthy personal lives of the Communist Party’s elite.

In Ms. Peng’s message to Mr. Zhang, she said the two met over a decade earlier when her career was taking off and hers was nearing its peak. At the time, she wrote, he was the Communist Party leader in Tianjin, a northern port city, and told her that his political position prevented him from divorcing his wife.

Mr. Zhang broke off contact with her, the post said, after ascending to the Communist Party’s highest body, the Politburo Standing Committee, a post he held for five years. During this time it was responsible for monitoring China’s early preparations for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which are now overshadowed by fury.

About three years ago, after resigning, Mr. Zhang called the director of a tennis academy to invite Ms. Peng to play tennis with him at a party-owned hotel in Beijing called the Kangming, which hosts retired officials, according to his post.

Later that day, she said, he forced her to have sex at his home. They resumed a relationship, but he insisted that it remain stealthy. She had to change cars to be able to enter the government compound where he lives in Beijing, she wrote. He warned her not to tell anyone, not even her mother.

Rarely with a word or hair out of place, Mr. Zhang seemed an unlikely protagonist of a scandal that has traveled the world. He belongs to a generation of leaders who stood up after the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, embracing the erased ethic of collective leadership under Hu Jintao, who predated 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 accounts, his father died when he was a child. He began studying economics at Xiamen University in Fujian, but his studies were interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong largely closed university classes.

In 1970 he was assigned to work at oil fields in southern China, where he first lifted bags of cement, according to official profiles.

In a few years, he rose through the management ladder. As Deng Xiaoping and other leaders led China into an era of market reform, Mr. Zhang became one of those officials whose economic expertise and few graduate studies marked them for promotion. He perfected the methodical and buttoned manner of an executive who had submerged his life in the party hierarchy.

He was the party leader of Shenzhen, the neighboring city of Hong Kong which Deng has promoted as a centerpiece of China’s new commercial dynamism. He won the favor of Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, and in the early 2000s he was appointed head of Shandong, a province teeming with ports and factories.

In 2007, he was promoted to overseeing Tianjin, the provincial-level port whose fortunes had declined while other coastal areas were booming. Mr. Zhang pushed ahead with plans to convert a lackluster industrial area of ​​Tianjin into a modern business district – a “new Manhattan” – that would attract multinationals and wealthy residents.

This project has hesitated under debt and inflated expectations, but Mr. Zhang moved to central leadership in 2012. He became Executive Vice Premier: in fact, Chinese Vice Premier.

“I hope that all party members, officials and members of the public in this city will continue to exercise strict surveillance on me,” he added. Mr. Zhang said in 2012 as he left Tianjin for Beijing.

Mr. Zhang’s experience in managing large projects has made him a confident person for some of the initiatives Mr. Xi has used to make his mark. He negotiated oil agreements with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and promoted the Belt and Road Initiative.

Mr. Zhang oversaw the initial preparations for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. In 2016, he met Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, while Mr. Bach was visiting the city.

It was Mr. Bach who held a video call with Ms. Peng on Sunday intended to reassure athletes and others concerned about her disappearance in the days following the release of her message.

Sordid reports earlier in Xi’s tenure sexual misdeeds of public servants on time surfaced in state media, disclosures intended to signal that he was serious about the cleansing of the party.

Mr Xi’s priority now appears to be to push back any whiff of scandal in the upper echelons of the party. The references to Ms. Peng’s account were almost wiped Internet in China. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian suggested that the attention around Ms. Peng had become “malicious exaggeration.” Official media have not shown or reported on Mr. Zhang since Ms. Peng went public; nor did they directly dispute his account.

“Even to deny his allegations would give them a level of credibility that you couldn’t then go back,” said Louisa lim, a former journalist who worked for a long time in China and author of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia”.

When Mr. Zhang retired in 2018, he disappeared from the public eye, as is the norm in Chinese politics. Retirement often comes with perks such as high quality health care, accommodation and travel to China, but also some supervision.

“Once you retire, your movements are reported to the party organization department,” said Minxin Pei, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who studies the party.

In her message, Ms. Peng appeared to indicate that she and Mr. Zhang had recently had a disagreement, and that he had “disappeared” again as he had done before. She wrote, however, that she expected her account to have little effect on Mr. Zhang’s eminence.

“With your wits and wit,” she wrote, “I’m sure you’ll deny it or blame me, or you could just play it cool.”

Claire Fu and Liu Yi contributed research.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Peng Shuai's accusation pierced the privileged citadel of Chinese politics
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