Peng Shuai’s impeachment pierced the privileged citadel of Chinese politics

Before Zhang Gaoli was inundated with accusations of sexually abusing a tennis champion, he seemed to embody the qualities that the Chinese Communist Party attributes to officials: strict, disciplined and impeccably loyal to the leader of the time.

He had steadily risen from running an oil refinery to a succession of executive positions along China’s burgeoning coast, avoiding the scandals and controversies that defeated other flashy ambitious politicians. He became known for his monotonous impersonality. When he entered the top of China, he invited people to look for something wrong in his behavior.

“Stern, low-key, taciturn,” summed up one of the few profiles of him in the Chinese media. His interests, Xinhua news agency said, include books, chess and tennis.

Now, the allegation of professional tennis player Peng Shuai has brought Mr. Zhang’s private life under a fire of international attention, making him a symbol of a political system that values ​​secrecy and control over open accountability. The allegation raises questions about how far Chinese officials are taking their stated ideals of cleanliness in their heavily guarded homes.

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

Ms. Peng’s story – that Mr. Zhang forced her into sex during a years-long on-again, off-again relationship – has not been confirmed. The Chinese authorities’ vigorous efforts to suppress any mention of the case suggest there is little chance that Mr Zhang will ever be called to the public, even if that might clear his name. Neither Ms. Peng nor Mr. Zhang have made a public comment since her post was published.

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

When Mrs. Peng, 35, posted her accusation on the popular social media platform Weibo on the night of Nov. 2, taking readers into the spoiled personal lives of the Communist Party’s elite.

In Ms. Peng’s post addressed to Mr. Zhang, she said the two had met more than a decade earlier as her career was taking off and his was approaching its peak. At the time, she wrote, he was the head of the Communist Party of Tianjin, a northern port city, and he told her that his political position made it impossible for him to divorce his wife.

Mr Zhang has cut contact with her, the post said after rising to the Communist Party’s highest organ, the Politburo Standing Committee, a position he held for five years. During this time, he was tasked with overseeing China’s initial preparations for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which are now overshadowed by the fury.

About three years ago, after his resignation, Mr. Zhang called the head of a tennis academy to summon Ms. Peng to play tennis with him at a Beijing party hotel, the Kangming, which hosts retired officials, according to her post.

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

With seldom a word or hair out of place, Mr. Zhang an unlikely protagonist for a scandal that rippled around the world. He belongs to a generation of civil servants who rose after the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution and adopted the self-effacing ethos 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, was born in a fishing village in Fujian Province. According to official records, his father died when he was a child. He began studying economics at Xiamen University in Fujian, but his education was cut short by the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong largely discontinued university classes.

In 1970, he was assigned to work on oil fields in southern China, where, according to official profiles, he lifted sacks of cement for the first time.

Within a few years he climbed into management. As Deng Xiaoping and other leaders ushered China into an era of market reform, Mr. Zhang one of those officials whose economic expertise and a little higher education got them promoted. He perfected the methodical, meticulous manner of a cadres who had plunged his life into the party hierarchy.

He was the party leader of Shenzhen, the city next to Hong Kong that Deng promoted as a showpiece of China’s newfound commercial dynamism. He won the favor of Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, and by the early 2000s he was put in charge of Shandong, a province full of ports and factories.

In 2007, he was promoted to oversee Tianjin, the provincial-level port whose fortunes had weakened as other coastal areas boomed. Mr. Zhang pushed through plans to transform a drab industrial area of ​​Tianjin into a modern business district – a “new Manhattan” – that would attract multinational corporations and wealthy residents.

That project faltered under debt and raised expectations, but Mr. Zhang stepped up to central leadership in 2012. He became Deputy Prime Minister of the Executive Branch: in effect, the Deputy Prime Minister of China.

“I hope that all party members, officials and the public in this city will continue to strictly monitor me,” Mr Zhang said in 2012 when he left Tianjin for Beijing.

The experience of Mr. Zhang managing major projects made him a safe hand for some of the initiatives Mr. Xi used to make his mark. He negotiated oil deals with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and promoted Mr Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Mr. Zhang oversaw early preparations for the 2022 Winter Olympics 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 after her message appeared.

Earlier in the tenure of Mr. Xi’s sometimes lurid reports of sexual misdeeds by officials surfaced in state media, revelations intended to show that he was serious about purging the party.

Mr Xi’s priority now seems to be fighting off any odor of scandal that threatens the top of the party. References to Ms. Peng’s account were nearly wiped from the internet in China. A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, suggested that the attention surrounding Ms Peng had become “malicious hype.” Official media have not shown or reported on Mr. Zhang since Ms. Peng went public; nor have they challenged her account directly.

“To deny even her allegations would be to give them a credibility that you can’t undo afterward,” said Louisa Lim, a former journalist who spent a long time in China and the 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 benefits such as quality healthcare, housing and travel within China, but also some control.

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

In her post, Ms. Peng seemed to indicate that she and Mr. Zhang had recently had a disagreement and that he had “disappeared” again as he did before. However, she wrote that she expected her report to have little impact on Mr. Zhang’s eminence.

“With your intelligence and wits,” she wrote, “I’m sure you’ll either deny it, or blame it on me, or you can just do it cool.”

Claire Fu and Liu Yi research contributed.

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