(CNN) — Before retiring as vice premier, Zhang Gaoli was the face of China’s organizing efforts ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
As the head of a government working group on the Beijing Games, Zhang inspected venue construction sites, visited athletes, unveiled official emblems, and held meeting after meeting to coordinate preparation work.
He received International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach at the leadership compound in the Chinese capital in 2016, promising to make the Games “fantastic, extraordinary and excellent.”
But now, three years into his retirement and less than three months before the Olympics, Zhang has found himself at the center of an explosive #MeToo scandal that has prompted global uproar — amplifying calls for a boycott of the Games that he helped organize.
Zhang, 75, was accused earlier this month by Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, 35, of sexual assault at his home after he retired three years ago. The two-time Grand Slam doubles champion also alleged a relationship with Zhang over an intermittent period that spanned at least a decade.
“Why did you have to come back to me, took me to your home to force me to have sex with you?” Peng alleged in a since-deleted social media post dated November 2.
“I know that for someone of your eminence, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you said you were not afraid. But even if it’s just me, like an egg hitting the stone, a moth flying into flames, courting self-destruction, I would tell the truth about us,” she wrote.
Chinese authorities rushed to muffle Peng with blanket censorship. But as weeks went by, the women’s tennis world began to demand answers as to Peng’s whereabouts — as well as a full investigation into her allegations against Zhang.
Amid growing global concern about her safety and well-being, individuals working for Chinese government-controlled media and the state sports system released a stream of “proof of life” photos and videos of Peng.
Bach, the IOC president who has been photographed with Zhang on at least one occasion, held a video call with Peng under the close watch of a Chinese sports official, during which the three-time Olympian insisted she is “safe and well” and wanted to have her “privacy respected.”
But Beijing has avoided any mention of Peng’s sexual assault allegations, with censors blocking all CNN broadcasts on this story in the country.
All the while, Zhang has remained completely outside of public view, and he has not issued any response to the accusation.
Since retirement, Zhang has kept a low profile and faded from public life, and there is no published information relating to his current whereabouts. CNN’s repeated requests for comment from China’s State Council Information Office — which handles press inquiries on behalf of the central government — have gone unanswered.
Who is Zhang Gaoli?
While in office, Zhang had cut a dull, rather unremarkable figure — even by the standards of the Communist Party, where senior officials typically follow a tight script while on official business and stay out of the spotlight in private.
In photos and on state television, he was rarely seen wearing any expression, and always sported impeccable slicked-back, jet-black hair — a hairstyle traditionally favored by senior Chinese officials.
According to a 2013 state media profile, Zhang enjoyed tennis, reading and playing Chinese chess in his spare time.
“There was nothing outstanding about him. He’s a standard technocrat trained and cultivated by the Chinese Communist Party system,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor of an official party journal who now lives in the United States.
“He had no notable achievements, nor was he involved in particular scandals — he had been a bland figure without any controversy.”
Even after he officially became one of China’s seven most powerful men, Zhang seldom stood out among his colleagues on the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, where he served alongside President Xi Jinping from 2012 to 2017.
But his low-key personality belied a tremendous power. As vice premier, he was in charge of aspects of China’s economy, its energy sector and Xi’s signature Belt and Road initiative — as well as preparations for the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Unlike Xi, who was born a “princeling” — a child of communist revolutionary heroes — which gave him inherent status and prestige within the party, Zhang came from a modest background.
Born in 1946 into a farmer’s family in a small seaside village in the southeastern province of Fujian, Zhang grew up impoverished. His father died before he turned 3 years old, and he helped his mother with farm work and fishing from a young age, according to state media reports.
But Zhang studied hard and was admitted to the economics department of Xiamen University, a prestigious institution in his home province. When he graduated, China was in the midst of the havoc wrought by the Cultural Revolution, a decade of political and social turmoil unleashed by late Chairman Mao Zedong in 1966.
Zhang was assigned a lowly job in a state-owned oil company in the neighboring province of Guangdong, carrying bags of cement from the warehouse. According to Chinese state media, it was while working there that he met Kang Jie, a colleague who would become his wife, though the report did not provide further details of their relationship. Zhang eventually rose through the ranks to become the party boss of the oil company, and started his political career from there.
In the ensuing three decades, Zhang continued his rise. In the 1990s, he was put in charge of economic planning for Guangdong, a pioneer for China’s economic reforms. In Guangdong, he also had a brief stint as the party chief of Shenzhen, home to a special economic zone set up by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and one of China’s fastest growing cities at the time.
After the turn of the century, Zhang was transferred to Shandong, the third largest provincial economy of China, before becoming the party chief of Tianjin, an important port city near Beijing, in 2007.
What are the allegations?
It was in Tianjin that Zhang is alleged to have begun a sexual relationship with Peng, according to the tennis star’s social media post. Peng claimed in the post that she first had sex with Zhang more than 10 years ago, though she did not explain the circumstances.
In 2012, when Xi took the helm of the party, Zhang was promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee in Beijing. Peng alleges he broke off contact with her soon after.
Then, the post alleges, one morning about three years ago after Zhang had retired, Peng was suddenly invited by him to play tennis in Beijing. Afterward, she wrote, Zhang and his wife brought Peng back to their home, where Peng claims she was pressured into having sex with Zhang.
“That afternoon I did not agree at first and was crying the whole time,” Peng wrote. Then, at dinner with Zhang and his wife, Zhang tried to talk her into it, according to the post.
“You said that the universe was so big that the earth was no more than a grain of sand in comparison, and that we humans were even less than that. You kept talking, trying to persuade me to let go of my ‘mental baggage,’” Peng alleges in the post.
She alleges she eventually relented, out of panic and fear, and with her “feelings” for Zhang from their time in Tianjin, according to the post.
Peng said she then began an extramarital relationship with Zhang, but she suffered “too much injustice and insults.” She claimed they got into a quarrel in late October, and Zhang refused to meet her and disappeared.
“I couldn’t describe how disgusted I was, and how many times I asked myself am I still a human? I feel like a walking corpse. Every day I was acting, which person is the real me?” wrote Peng. CNN could not independently verify the authenticity of the more than 1,600-word post.
At a news conference Tuesday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian declined to comment on whether the Chinese government will launch an investigation into Peng’s sexual assault allegations against Zhang. He repeated previous comments made to reporters, saying Peng’s situation “was not a diplomatic issue.”
He added that the government hoped “malicious speculation” about Peng’s well-being and whereabouts would stop, and that her case should not be politicized.
Peng’s original post sent shock waves through Chinese social media, and was deleted within 30 minutes. Since then, Chinese censors have been diligently scrubbing her name and even the vaguest references to her allegations from the internet.
And as individuals connected to Chinese state media push a narrative that Peng is well on international platforms that are blocked in China, mention of the tennis star remains entirely absent within the country’s own domestic media and online sphere.
Zhang, meanwhile, has remained silent. His last public appearance was on July 1, at a grand ceremony celebrating the 100th founding anniversary of the party in central Beijing. The septuagenarian was seen standing on top of the Gate of Heavenly Peace among a row of retired leaders.
Will there be an investigation?
The Women’s Tennis Association, as well as some of the biggest names in tennis and the United Nations have called for a full, fair and transparent investigation into Peng’s allegations against Zhang.
But so far, there has been no indication an investigation is underway.
Chinese authorities have not acknowledged Peng’s accusation, and it remains unclear if Peng has reported her allegations to the police. Peng wrote in the post that she did not have any evidence, and “it was simply impossible to have evidence” because Zhang was always worried that she would record things.
Ling Li, an expert on Chinese politics and law at the University of Vienna, said if Peng’s allegations were true, Zhang’s extramarital relationship would no doubt be regarded as “improper” and a violation of the “lifestyle discipline” of the party.
According to the rules of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party’s much-feared disciplinary watchdog, the sanction for such an offense ranges from remonstration to expulsion from the party, depending how much damage the party has suffered from the offense, Li said.
“Having said that, there has been no party official of (Zhang’s) rank who has been expelled from the party based on a lifestyle offense alone. And an allegation of sexual misconduct does not necessarily trigger an anti-corruption investigation,” she added.
“If past practice is any guide, to launch an anti-corruption investigation against a member of the Politburo or above, the decision needs to be made by the Politburo Standing Committee collectively.”
Xi’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign has previously targeted senior officials — including a former Politburo Standing Committee member, but they were all initiated by the party itself. In China, party leaders of Zhang’s rank are beyond reproach from members of the general public, and it would be almost unthinkable that a sexual assault allegation could bring down a top leader.
Deng, the former party journal editor, said it is virtually impossible for the Communist Party to cave in to international pressure to conduct a transparent investigation into Zhang and release the results to the world.
Even though Zhang is not seen as an ally of Xi’s (instead, he is considered to be in the orbit of former President Jiang Zemin and his so-called Shanghai faction), publicly punishing a former elite official who worked so closely with Xi for alleged sexual misconduct would likely be considered a big embarrassment not only for the party, but also to Xi himself — especially given that Xi has doubled down hard on enforcing party discipline.
Under Xi, the party has made an example of disgraced officials, including those who have abused their power for sex. In recent years, it has become common for salacious accounts of officials’ tangled private lives to be published in state media following their removal from office on corruption charges.
“As soon as he came to power, Xi underscored that officials should be honest and upright, and act as moral role models for society. He has demanded Communist Party members to maintain their (ideological) purity,” Deng said. “While indiscretion in private life is still prevalent among officials, it is a different matter when it is thrust into the public view.”
And because of that, Deng says he believes the party has likely already quietly launched an internal investigation into Peng’s allegations. But neither the process nor the result of the probe is likely be announced externally, he said.
“The last thing they want to do is to give the international community an impression that they’ve been pressured into doing it,” Deng said.
Now, the ball is in the court of the international sports community — whether they’ll be satisfied by the “proof of life” videos of Peng, or if they will continue to press for a full investigation into her allegations.
As for Zhang, it’s likely he would never have expected that after committing much of the final years of his career to preparations for the Winter Olympics, allegations against him would one day fuel growing calls for a boycott of the Games.
“But if more and more countries join the Olympic boycott and the pressure becomes too acute, we can’t entirely exclude the possibility — however small — that (the party) might throw Zhang under the bus,” said Deng.
“This was originally a scandal against Zhang, but the (party’s) fetish for power has blunted its response, turning a personal scandal into a national scandal.”