Zhang, an amateur economist and poet, told students before being elevated to the seven-member Politburo standing committee in 2012 that life was “a long and winding road.” “When I am alone and defenseless, it gives me strength, it gives me hope.”
But on November 2, the son of a Fujian farmer, who went from hauling cement during Mao’s Cultural Revolution to becoming a protégé of former President Jiang Zemin, was suddenly left alone and exposed.
Peng accused the 75-year-old woman of forcing her to have sex with him while his wife stood guard outside the door.
“I know that for someone of his eminence, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, has said that he is not afraid,” he wrote on Weibo, the Chinese social networking service. “But even if it’s just me, like an egg hitting a stone, or a moth against flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you.”
Zhang had invited Peng to his home to play tennis, but his intentions grew darker as the day progressed. “That afternoon I did not give my consent and I could not stop crying,” Peng wrote. “You brought me to your house and forced us to have relatives.”
The alleged incident was part of an on-off relationship that began when Zhang was Tianjin party secretary from 2007 to 2012 and resumed after he retired from the standing committee in 2018. Like many sexual assault cases, it is complicated, comprehensive. of power imbalances and crushing silence.
Now he has highlighted how far China will go to quell the controversy. The biggest story in world sport, #WhereIsPengShuai, is unfolding in China right now, but you wouldn’t know it if you lived in Beijing or Shanghai.
All recent references to Peng have been removed from China’s internet, CNN’s limited broadcast in the country has been cut off whenever his name is mentioned. On Tuesday night, China’s Foreign Ministry removed the questions and non-answers about its situation from its official transcript.
“In China, there can be no public support for her,” said Chinese feminist Lü Pin, who now lives in New York. “The question is, is the current international pressure enough to really free Peng Shuai?”
Pin isn’t sure it is. “Governments and all international organizations must issue clear and forceful statements that they have not been misled” by the Chinese government videos that purport to show that Peng is safe and free.
Peng, especially in her career as a doubles player, along with other “Golden Flowers” Li Na, Zheng Jie, Yan Zi and Sun Tiantian, brought the glory of tennis to China, transforming it from a tennis haven into a lucrative market in one of each.
The deputy director of the China Tennis Association, Zhang Xianing, was so convinced of the potential of the “Golden Flowers” to start a tennis revolution in China that he promised to invest the country’s resources in the group.
“This is similar to the theory put forward by our former leader, Deng Xiaoping, to allow some people to get rich first, as this leads to the whole country eventually getting rich,” Xianing said.
Zhang also took advantage of Deng’s philosophy by capitalizing on new money in Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Tianjin. The couple, in their own way, had managed the fortunes of the Chinese state before meeting on a tennis court.
But while Peng was frustrated by a system that forced her to give up half her earnings and campaigned for greater independence, Zhang was a model cadre: “for the people, pragmatic and clean at all times,” said one profile of Xinhua from him in 2012.
“His would be a model career for someone moving from fairly humble beginnings,” said Hans Hendrischke, a professor of Chinese business and management at the University of Sydney who studied Zhang’s career in Tianjin. “He’s not from the red aristocracy.”
But neither is Zhang an obscure Chinese official. He cared for Xi’s father, the communist revolutionary, Xi Zhongxun, as a younger cadre, long before the trajectory of his son’s rise was known, and then he made a name for himself in Tianjin, where his hands-on approach at all hours of the day. The day intimidated other local party agents as it pushed GDP growth to more than 16 percent a year due to massive infrastructure debt.
“We are not afraid of heaven or earth,” a cadre told Chinese state media in 2011. “I am afraid Secretary Zhang will call in the evening and check the work at any time.”
Said Hendrischke: “The other part that is emphasized over and over again is his low profile. His speeches and what people say about him are boring. He polished this image of the humble painting, which means that deep down it must have been tough as hell. “
His political connections appeared to help him escape public retaliation for his connections to billionaire steel magnate Du Shuanghua, who gave $ 9 million in bribes to Rio Tinto executives., including Australian star Hu, and for the participation of his son-in-law in tax havens abroad through the Panama Papers.
By 2014, he was negotiating with Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin on Xi’s behalf, leading China’s climate change commitments long before the Glasgow Climate Summit, signing a $ 435 billion gas pipeline to Russia and putting Russia in charge of preparations for the Winter Olympics that Peng’s allegations now threaten.
In October 2017, he delivered one of his last major speeches to the Party’s Winter Olympics task force. He urged them to “strengthen international cooperation and show China’s good image.”
The image now associated internationally with sport in China is not what Zhang had envisioned. The Communist Party of China has less than three months to convince the international public that Peng is safe, or it could face the specter of not just a diplomatic boycott but international athletes protesting at their own Olympics.
So far, he’s played the only tricks he could in a system that seems incapable of navigating the nuances of sexual assault allegations and international pressure.
China’s twisted international diplomatic effort, first through Peng videos that included a reference to the November 21 date five times, and through a video interview with the IOC (a commercial actor) has not silenced his critics, especially since Zhang was directly involved in the negotiations with IOC President Thomas Bach in his role as head of the Party’s Winter Olympics.
The World Players Association, which represents 85,000 athletes from around the world, said on Wednesday that independent contact should be established with Peng.
“The International Olympic Committee’s video call has not only failed to provide the necessary assurances, but it has exacerbated global alarm by raising many questions that human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch have rightly raised,” it said in a statement.
The party now faces an insoluble dilemma. Access to the demands of the Women’s Tennis Association for an independent phone call and open up to a position of weakness? Or continue to aggressively refute threats to your position or deny that they exist in the hope that it will disappear.
“It will not be an individual decision,” says Hendrischke. “I guess the committee is sitting there and saying what do we do? How do we execute it? What do we do next? It is unprecedented. “