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BEIJING, Nov. 25 (Reuters) – Even as Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai appeared on a video call with the Olympics head, the former deputy prime minister who accused her of sexual assault remained silent and out of sight – retaining the veil of secrecy held by the Chinese political elite.
Zhang Gaoli, who turns 75 this month, was accused by the former Olympian in a Nov. 2 social media post of coercing her into sex three years ago. Peng said she and Zhang, who was deputy prime minister when Beijing hosted the upcoming Winter Games, had an on-off consensual relationship until he broke up with her.
Her post was removed shortly after it was published and the topic has been blocked online in China. But when she disappeared from view for nearly three weeks, international concerns for her safety arose, accompanied by the #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag.
Peng, 35, made a number of appearances over the weekend, including a video call with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, but they have not allayed doubts among fellow athletes and global organizations about her well-being. Amnesty International accused the IOC and Bach of participating in a “laundering of possible human rights violations” by China ahead of the Games in February.
Less attention is paid to Zhang, who retired in 2018 and remains retired like almost all top Chinese leaders. He and the Chinese government have not immediately responded to Peng’s claims, which Reuters has not been able to verify.
The China’s State Council Information Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment and did not respond to Peng’s post or made Zhang available for comment.
“Letting Zhang come out to speak will result in a reputation loss that it just doesn’t want before the Winter Games,” said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
“Even if the party decides to take internal disciplinary action against Zhang, they won’t announce it right away, but will wait for the storm to blow over, to show strength,” he added.
Zhang’s last appearance was on July 1, when he sat on the southern ramparts of Beijing’s Forbidden City for the 100th anniversary of the founding of China’s ruling Communist Party. The venue is not far from the Great Hall of the People, where he had made a “solemn commitment” to a successful Winter Games six years earlier at the Olympic Organizing Committee’s launch ceremony in Beijing.
From 2007 to 2012, Zhang was the supreme political leader in Tianjin city. Under his supervision, the once-derelict provincial-level metropolis southeast of Beijing became China’s fastest-growing region in 2011.
As Deputy Prime Minister from 2013 to 2018, he oversaw economic affairs, including President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road initiative, and led a “leading small group” that oversaw the Winter Olympics before handing over the reins to the current Deputy Prime Minister Han Zheng in 2018.
In 2016, he met Bach himself and told the IOC chief that work was underway to “make the Beijing 2022 Winter Games fantastic, extraordinary and outstanding,” according to a report on the Chinese government’s English-language website.
Peng claimed in her Weibo post that she first met and had sex with Zhang in Tianjin. She said that shortly after Zhang retired, he reconnected through a sports doctor and rekindled the relationship.
“You stopped contacting me after you were promoted to Beijing. I would have liked to bury everything in my heart. Since you have no intention of taking responsibility, why did you still look for me and force me to to have sex with you at your house?” she wrote.
Peng also claimed in her post that Zhang’s wife, Kang Jie, was aware of the relationship. As with the wives of most Chinese political leaders, very little is known about Kang, including her age. The couple has a son.
HISTORY OF THE SILENCE
Zhang’s silence is consistent with how party leaders have dealt with allegations ranging from charges of corruption in the Panama Papers to rumors of extramarital affairs in the past, experts say.
Xi made a sweeping campaign to eradicate corruption a hallmark of his nine-year tenure, demanding that party officials “be able to withstand the toughest tests” of political, professional and family morals.
Zhang’s only option is to remain silent, according to Chen Daoyin, a former associate professor at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law and now based in Chile, where he follows the case closely.
“If he denies he will not be credible because as a result of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, everyone in China now knows that it is common for Chinese officials to use power for sex,” Chen said.
Typically, allegations of sexual misconduct by officials are only mentioned after an investigation into political or economic crimes, almost adding as an aggravating factor.
The Chinese #MeToo movement, which struggled to gain traction, took on a new focus after the Peng case. No high-level party official has been accused in the same way as Zhang.
“The party considers itself above the law and is accountable to no one but its leaders,” said Wu Qiang, a Beijing author formerly of Tsinghua University.
“If he admits Peng’s accusation, Peng could become a symbol for the Chinese feminist movement to rally around, posing a challenge to the party’s power.”
Reporting by Yew Lun Tian; Editing by Tony Munroe, Simon Cameron-Moore, Leela de Kretser and Sonya Hepinstall
Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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