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Chinese politician accused of keeping out of sight by Peng Shuai

BEIJING – Even when Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai appeared on a video call with the Head of the Olympic delegation, the former deputy prime minister she was accused of sexually assaulting remained silent and hidden – only maintain a veil of secrecy covering China’s political elite.

Zhang Gaoli, who turned 75 this month, was accused by the former Olympic athlete in a November 2 social media post of forcing her to have sex three years ago. Peng said she and Zhang, the deputy prime minister when Beijing was awarded the upcoming Winter Olympics, had conducted a short-term consensual relationship until he broke up with her.

Her post was deleted shortly after it was published and the topic has been blocked online in China. But when she disappeared from public view for nearly three weeks, international concern about her safety flared, accompanied by the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.

Peng, 35, made a series of appearances over the weekend, including a video call with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, but they were unable to clear the doubts of fellow athletes and global organizations for her welfare. Amnesty International accused the IOC and Bach of participating in “vindicating possible human rights abuses” by China ahead of the Olympics in February.

Less attention has been focused on Zhang, who retired in 2018 and like nearly all of China’s top leaders won’t be eyeing the public in retirement. He and the Chinese government have not directly commented on Peng’s claims, which Reuters could not verify.

China’s State Council Information Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and has not commented on Peng’s post or reached out to Zhang for comment.

“For Zhang to speak will lead to a reputational damage they don’t want right before the Winter Olympics,” 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, it will not announce it immediately, but will wait for the storm to come first to show its strength,” he added.

TIANJIN BOSS

Zhang’s last appearance was on July 1, when he was sitting on the southern ramparts of the Forbidden City in Beijing on the 100th anniversary of the founding of China’s ruling Communist Party. The site was not far from the Great Hall of the People, where six years earlier he had made a “solemn pledge” of a successful Winter Olympics at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee.

From 2007 to 2012, Zhang was the top political leader in the city of Tianjin. Under his watch, the once dwindling provincial metropolis southeast of Beijing became China’s fastest-growing region in 2011.

As deputy prime minister from 2013 to 2018, he was in charge of economic affairs, including the Belt and Road initiative signed by President Xi Jinping, and headed a “” leading small group” oversees the Winter Olympics before handing them over to current Vice Premier Han Chinh in 2018.

In 2016, he met Bach himself, telling the IOC boss that work was being done to “ensure the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are great, extraordinary and excellent”, according to a report on Chinese government English website.

Peng alleged in her Weibo post that she first met Zhang and had sex with him in Tianjin. She said that soon after Zhang retired, he reconnected through a sports doctor and rekindled the relationship.

“You stopped contacting me after you promoted to Beijing. I wanted to bury everything in my heart. Since you have no intention of taking responsibility, why are you still looking for me, and forcing me to have sex? sex with you at your place.” housing?” she wrote.

Peng also alleges in his post that Zhang’s wife, Kang Jie, knew about the relationship. As with the wives of most Chinese political leaders, little is known about Kang, including her age. The couple has a son.

HISTORY OF SURPRISE

Zhang’s silence, experts say, is consistent with how party leaders have handled in the past with allegations ranging from corruption allegations in the Panama Papers to rumors of official involvement. extramarital relationships, experts say.

Undertaking a campaign to root out the corruption that has become a hallmark of his nine-year term, Xi has ordered party officials to “pass the harshest tests” of political ethics, professions, and ethics. career and family.

Zhang’s only option is to remain silent, according to Chen Daoyin, formerly an associate professor at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law and now based in Chile, where he has closely followed the case.

“If he denied it, he wouldn’t be trustworthy, because as a result of Mr. Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, it is now known to everyone in China that Chinese officials use power for sex is normal.

Usually, allegations of sexual misconduct by officials are only mentioned after an investigation into a political or economic crime, almost added as an aggravating circumstance.

Struggling to gain traction, China’s #MeToo movement has taken on the new spotlight in the wake of the Peng affair. No other high-ranking party official is accused of being similar to Zhang.

“The Party considers itself above the law and is not accountable to anyone other than its leaders,” said Wu Qiang, an author in Beijing who previously worked at Tsinghua University.

“If he admits Peng’s accusations, then Peng could become an icon that China’s feminist movement can rally on,” said Chen, a former associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science. , which could pose a challenge to the party’s authority”. Law.

(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian; Editing by Tony Munroe, Simon Cameron-Moore, Leela de Kretser and Sonya Hepinstall)

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