Peng Shuai’s assault accusations focus attention on China’s elite political factions

Zhang Gaoli may have been remembered as a reform-focused cadre who played his part in enabling China to emerge from poverty and as the representative of a young nation. , and even held talks with Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin.

But an allegation of sexual assault was granted by tennis star Peng Shuai drew the 75-year-old to join the international #MeToo and focus attention on the secret network of alliances of the highest levels of the Communist Party of China.

The question Zhang faces is whether the scandal stemmed from an individual and will eventually be erased from history by state censors, or whether it will become the basis for a protracted attack. of opponents to overthrow his network of influential allies.

Throughout its 100-year history, the CCP has proven that patronage and loyalty policies, not merit or wrongdoing, ultimately determine an official’s promotion or decline. The bad luck of a high-ranking official may bode ill for those closest to them.

The party’s internal disciplinary body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, also has a record of accusing elites of sexual misconduct during purges.

Under President Xi Jinping, factional conflict is “much weaker” than in previous periods, when ruthless power struggles within the CCP spilled out into the community, according to a China scholar. Quoc, who wants to remain anonymous.

“But it hasn’t gone away yet. People are just afraid to talk about it,” he said.

Zhang Gaoli walks past President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2014
Zhang Gaoli, turning, walks past President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in this photo taken in 2014 © Patrick Baert / AFP via Getty Images

Peng went missing from the public this month after accusing Zhang, 40 years her senior, of sexually assaulting her at least once in Tianjin, the city where he held a senior party post since 2007. until 2012.

The three-time athlete’s re-emergence through a series of censored videos in state media and a careful statement from the International Olympic Committee has increased scrutiny before Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.

But Peng’s plight may inevitably become entangled in the ruthless power games that the Chinese government leads.

“If there’s a ‘political factor’, Peng’s situation becomes much more complicated, and for the regime, the relational aspect,” said Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. the international public is less important.

“They don’t want this international PR disaster right before an Olympics that looks complicated but when it comes to it, regime stability outweighs everything,” he said.

Zhang’s term on the standing committee of the politburo, China’s top political body, ended in 2017 and served as deputy prime minister a year later. However, a clue to Zhang’s future may lie in a relationship formed decades ago, during a period of China’s economic development.

Zhang started his career with a state-owned petroleum corporation in Guangdong, southern China. During the 1970s and early 1980s, he rose from work as a porter and personal secretary to head of the company’s planning department.

During the late 1980s and into the 1990s, he led the Guangdong Economic Commission before serving as deputy provincial party committee for nearly 10 years and four years as party secretary of Shenzhen, the heart of the industry. Chinese technology.

According to the profile of Cheng Li, an expert on party leadership at the Brookings Institution, as he rose through the party ranks, he was “regarded by many as the defender of Jiang Zemin and Zeng Qinghong.”

Jiang was the president of China after Deng Xiaoping. Zeng is Jiang’s vice president and right-hand man. Although extremely powerful in their infancy, their influence seems to have waned under Mr. Xi.

But Jiang remains a “unifying point” for different factions within the party, the Chinese academic said. “There are so many different groups that have nothing in common except their potential opposition to Xi Jinping. That is why Jiang Zemin is so important.”

Zhang has contacts with top business figures, including Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing. According to Brookings’ Cheng, Zhang was married to a classmate from Xiamen University. Their daughter married the son of Lee Yin Yee, a wealthy Hong Kong businessman.

Analysts at Cercius Group, a Montreal-based consulting firm that specializes in Chinese elite politics, note that he has been involved in state-owned land transactions with groups including Evergrande and Fantasia. Both are among China’s most indebted real estate groups, both headquartered in Shenzhen, and are now fighting for survival.

Although Zhang was not seen as a rival to Mr. Xi at the time he took office as president in 2012, his broader network could now prove crucial to his future.

According to Cercius, Zhang “has nothing to do with Xi – he is of course ‘playing football’. . . but that’s it”.

“Zhang has never been seen as an ally of Mr. Xi in the academic field of Chinese elite literature, nor in Taiwan’s elite Chinese literature, or even in Hong Kong-based analysis. . . Zhang is pure’jiang-pai’,” said the consulting firm, referring to the unofficial name given to the elite faction loyal to Jiang Zemin.

Victor Shih, an associate professor at the University of California San Diego, notes that Zhang worked for many years with politburo members Li Hongzhong and Zhao Kezhi, the minister of public security.

“Of course, in this case, Zhao Kezhi’s help would be crucial,” Shih said.

Zhang’s seniority means he’s also promoting others, experts say, meaning a broader group of rising officials could be affected by his declining ability, experts say. experts said.

Shih suggested the list might include Liu Kun, the finance minister; Wang Menghui, minister of urban development and housing; Niu Yibing, deputy director of the Cyberspace Administration of China’s powerful internet watchdog; and Zheng Yanxiong, Hong Kong’s new chief of national security.

However, experts are still unsure whether the charges against Zhang will be enough to oust him.

“Of course, you have to unleash the censorship to show that ‘we’re protecting ourselves,’” Cercius analysts said of the reaction to Peng’s first social media post. “But in reality, Mr. Xi now has the incentive to punish Zhang if he wants to.”

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