For the past three weeks, the world has been asking #WhereIsPengShuai, after the Chinese tennis star alleged on social media she was sexually assaulted by a former senior government official.
Peng’s allegations, published on Weibo in a post, were quickly censored. She was not seen for almost three weeks, prompting an international campaign calling for information on her whereabouts and wellbeing.
The man at the centre of the allegations has also remained out of the public eye, prompting human rights groups and supporters to ask #WhereIsZhangGaoli?
The now-retired official has not been seen in public since Peng’s claims, and has not offered a reply or responded to media inquiries. The Chinese government has not commented except for the ministry of foreign affairs condemning “malicious hyping”. Zhang’s name is not completely censored on social media like Peng’s, but there are no recent posts about him, suggesting potential deletions. No comments are allowed on any historical post about him.
There is no sign of an investigation by police or any other authority into Peng’s claims.
Zhang is a lauded figure in China and appears to have avoided controversy until now. A July profile by Duowei, an overseas Chinese language news site said to be closely connected to Beijing, said Zhang was seen by many as “serious, low-key and unsmiling” – the latter reportedly due to an injury – with a reputation for pushing his subordinates to work hard.
Zhang, 75, was once one of China’s most powerful politicians, sitting on the seven-member politburo standing committee (PSC) – the most senior decision-making body in the Chinese Communist party (CCP) – from 2013 to 2018, and as vice-premier was second in line to Li Keqiang.
Peng’s post alleged that three years ago, after Zhang had retired from the PSC, he invited her to his house to play tennis with him and his wife, after which he coerced her into sex while someone stood outside the door guarding it. The post claimed the two had been in a consensual extramarital affair for several years until Zhang was appointed to the PSC and stopped contacting Peng.
“The absence of Zhang’s voice is a manifestation of the unaccounted power of the Communist party,” said Human Rights Watch’s senior China researcher, Yaqiu Wang. “Instead of publicly responding to an allegation that had garnered such intense international attention – like a leader in a democratic country has to do – Zhang and the CCP simply silenced [Peng].”
Official silence is standard procedure when a party official faces such allegations from external sources. This case is particularly sensitive as China’s struggling #MeToo movement has never named a senior CCP official before.
According to the profile, Zhang was born into a poor farming family in Fujian province and rose through the ranks of the party, including as party secretary for Shenzhen and Tianjin, where Peng alleges they first got together.
As vice-premier Zhang was in charge of economic matters, and headed a steering group for the bid and preparations for the Beijing Winter Olympics. In the public-facing role, Zhang met the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, Thomas Bach – one of the IOC officials who last week spoke to Peng via video link and supported Beijing’s claim she was fine.
Many said the call did not prove Peng was free and not subject to duress, and rights groups accused the IOC of participating in a “publicity stunt” and “whitewashing” ahead of the February Games.
Zhang retired from the PSC after the 18th National People’s Congress in 2018 under rules preventing leaders older than 68 being reappointed. There was no farewell announcement – his name was simply not among those listed on the PSC after the central committee’s first meeting the following year.
His last public appearance was in July, sitting among official attenders at the centenary celebrations of the CCP.
Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, said even if the party did take action, “they won’t announce it right away, but will wait for the storm to blow over first, so as to show strength”.
China’s state council has been contacted for comment.