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.
“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.
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?
In public, 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.
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 shouldn’t disguise the tremendous power he wielded. He was in charge of the economy, the energy sector and Xi’s signature Belt and Road initiative — as well as preparations for the Beijing Winter Olympics.
“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.”
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.
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.
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 entered 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.
Will there be an investigation?
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’s image, but also to Xi himself — especially given that Xi has doubled down hard on enforcing party discipline.
While the private lives of senior officials remain a closely guarded secret, allegations of extramarital affairs among political elites are commonplace — and have long been fodder for public gossip.
“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 dedicating 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.”