The Hindu Profiles | ‘Traffic light’ coalition, Manipur PLA, and Zhang Gaoli

Zhang Gaoli | Double fault

For years, Zhang Gaoli was known for his image as a quintessential Communist Party bureaucrat. So careful was Mr. Zhang that he spent decades rising through the ranks of China’s ruling party, including to its innermost sanctum of power, the Politburo Standing Committee, and to the post of Vice Premier, with next to nothing known about him. Indeed, many Chinese citizens would be hard pressed to even identify Mr. Zhang from a photograph.

Also read: Peng Shuai | Breaking the silence

The state media portrayed him as an efficient administrator, while his public speeches, littered with the long phrases of party-speak, cemented his reputation as a bland apparatchik. As far as its officials are concerned, the party likes it that way. The blander the better (except, of course, for the man occupying the top most) and lesser the scope for the public to sniff out anything that may dent the image of the party. Indeed, more flamboyant officials, whose actions wittingly or unwittingly end up shattering this carefully built artifice, usually end up being purged. Ask Bo Xilai, the charismatic former Politburo member who is now spending a life sentence in prison.

Mr. Zhang, three years into his retirement, has now found himself in the spotlight in unexpected circumstances, while the party is scrambling to answer searching questions about the behaviour of one of its most senior former officials.

Watch | What happened to Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai?

On November 2, leading Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai posted an emotional message on Sina Weibo, a Twitter equivalent used in China, detailing how she had been sexually assaulted by Mr. Zhang and subsequently began a years-long affair. The first time he forced himself on her, she wrote, was 10 years ago when she was 25 and he was 65. Mr. Zhang and his wife had invited Ms. Peng home, before, she wrote, he forced himself on her. By then, Ms. Peng was already one of China’s most famous athletes, and two years later, she would win two grand slams and become the world’s number one ranked player in women’s doubles. Ms. Peng wrote that Mr. Zhang abruptly cut off all contact when he ascended to the party’s top body in 2012. He resumed the affair a year into his retirement in 2018, she said, when he contacted her, through the head of a tennis academy, to play a game of tennis with him.

Also read: WTA concerns persist after videos of Peng Shuai emerge

After that game, he again invited her home and forced her to have sex, while his wife was guarding the door. In the post, Ms. Peng wrote she had complicated feelings about Mr. Zhang and their relationship. After the attack in 2018, she said, “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.”

When Mr. Zhang first met Ms. Peng, he was already a senior CPC official and the party boss of Tianjin, a municipality near Beijing. He was little known prior to the Tianjin job. Born in 1946, Mr. Zhang rose through the party ranks from his native Fujian province. In 2002, he became the Governor of the eastern province of Shandong, his first high profile position. Mr. Zhang entered the national spotlight in 2012 at the Party Congress that elevated Xi Jinping to the top post, when he was named to the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee.

Image shattered

If the party media liked to describe him as a low-key administrator, the recent allegations have shattered that image. This is one reason for the massive censorship effort within China. “It allows people to see the real life of China’s top leaders as never before, behind the power-wrapped morality,” Chinese feminist writer Lu Pin said on Twitter. “Imagine their excessive abuse of power being so authentically identified under the witness of so many people. Why does everyone know that Peng Shuai’s revelation is too real?”

Ms. Peng’s original post was deleted within 34 minutes, yet screenshots have been shared on Chinese social media and sparked discussion on the case, even if the official media has stayed silent and censors have worked overtime to scrub all references.

But so far, there has been no attempt by the authorities to deal with Ms. Peng’s allegations, let alone acknowledge them. Instead, the preoccupation now is to address the widespread global concerns about Ms. Peng’s safety, voiced by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and leading tennis players from Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic to Naomi Osaka. Part of that effort has been to put out photos of Ms. Peng having dinner in Beijing and attending a youth tennis tournament. A video call was also arranged with Thomas Bach, head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). A statement from the IOC, that was widely criticised for appearing to help the authorities in their effort to turn the page on the allegations, said Ms. Peng “explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time.” Signs are Ms. Peng is already being pressured into retracting her allegations. China’s state broadcaster China Global Television Network tweeted a statement purported to be from Ms. Peng, saying that “the news in that [WTA] release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true”.

Mr. Zhang, meanwhile, has maintained a complete silence. Incidentally, among his responsibilities prior to retirement was working with the International Olympic Committee and preparing Beijing for the coming Winter Olympics, which begin on February 4. Chinese authorities are going all out to ensure no “negative” news will detract from the games. Mr. Zhang, in one of his last public appearances, called for the games to be “open” and “clean”. The authorities’ handling of Ms. Peng's allegations, on the other hand, have been anything but that.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 11:37:43 PM |

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