Peng Shuai: Former Chinese vice-premier accused of sexual assault stays silent and out of sight

Zhang Gaoli rose to Politburo of Chinese Communist Party after decades-long career as a politician, and has been described as ‘stern’ and ‘low-key’ by media

Stuti Mishra
Thursday 25 November 2021 13:12 GMT
WTA Threatens To Pull Out Of China Without Proof of Peng Shuai’s Safety

Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China, has been at the centre of the international controversy over the whereabouts of tennis star Peng Shuai since she accused him of sexually assaulting her. Yet while Peng has appeared in several videos and statements, he has maintained his silence throughout the month and has still not been seen in public.

The allegations represent the first time a top politician of China’s Communist Party has been involved in sexual assault allegations since the start of the #MeToo movement in the country.

Since Peng’s first accusation on 2 November, a lot has happened. Her post was deleted within minutes on social media site Weibo and triggered swift censorship by Chinese authorities. Searches for her name or even the word “tennis” appeared to be blocked on Weibo. Days later, the former tennis star disappeared from public eye herself.

On 17 November, Chinese state media cited her as saying in an email that the allegations of sexual assault were false and that she was fine. When doubts over the authenticity of this email emerged and as international concern over Peng’s disappearance mounted, a video and photographs were released online. Peng also held a video call with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach last Sunday.

But the 67-second video as well as photos shared by China’s state-run media of Peng smiling and seemingly enjoying herself at a restaurant have failed to quell concerns, and instead triggered worries among rights activists that the former Olympian is under duress.

Throughout all this, Mr Zhang has been silent and has not released any statement on the matter, while avoiding the public gaze.

‘Stern politician’

It isn’t very unusual for Chinese politicians to maintain a low profile after retirement. There is no published information on his current whereabouts, even prior to Peng’s allegations.

The 75-year-old politician has had a long career as a top politician in China. Starting as a construction worker at an oil refinery to running it, he eventually took on political leadership posts. He rose through the ranks in the Communist Party, and at the end of his career became the face of China’s preparations ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Mr Zhang has often been described as “stern” and “low-key” by Chinese media outlets for staying away from public attention. He was one of China’s seven most powerful men at the peak of his career as a member of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. Besides the beginning of the preparations for the Winter Olympics, he also had a major role in decisions related to China’s economy, energy sector and the Belt and Road initiative.

Sexual assault allegations

But the allegations by Peng that he coerced her into sex three years ago, soon after he retired from the position of vice premier, have triggered an uproar in the country and around the world, including fuelling demands that the Winter Olympics should be boycotted.

On 2 November, the 35-year-old two-time Grand Slam doubles champion took to Weibo to share a 1,600-word long post accusing the politician of sexually assaulting her.

She said she first had sex with Mr Zhang in 2011, when he was the Communist Party’s secretary of Tianjin. But in 2012, when he was promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP in Beijing after President Xi Jinping took the helm, Mr Zhang broke off all contact with her.

Three years ago, after he had retired, Peng said that he invited her to play tennis in Beijing. Mr Zhang and his wife brought her back to their home and pressured her into having sex with him, she wrote.

“That afternoon I did not agree at first, and was crying the whole time,” Peng wrote in the now-deleted post, adding that she finally agreed out of panic and fear, and also cited her “feelings” for Mr Zhang from their time in Tianjin as one of the reasons for accepting.

“Why did you have to come back to me, took me to your home to force me to have sex with you?” she asked in the post, where she also detailed the account of her extramarital relationship with the retired politician, which brought her “too much injustice and insults”.

“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.

According to Peng, the two got into a fight in October, following which Mr Zhang broke all contact with her and disappeared, leaving her feeling “disgusted”.

“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?” she wrote.

Calls for investigation

The post has been censored by Chinese media and disappeared from Weibo. The topic has also been blocked online in China.

Officials have refused to respond to questions relating to the allegations. However, calls for investigation and action against the former politician have been raised around the globe. There have also been several questions about Beijing’s silence on the matter.

The Women’s Tennis Association, the European Union, the United Nations, countries such as Australia and the US, and prominent players around the world have raised questions over her alleged disappearance and raised similar concerns of safety with just three months remaining until the Winter Olympics.

“Letting Zhang come out to speak will result in a reputational loss that it [the Chinese Communist Party] doesn’t want just before the Winter Games,” Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, told Reuters.

“Even if the party does decide to take internal disciplinary action against Zhang, they won’t announce it right away, but will wait for the storm to blow over first, so as to show strength,” he added.

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