With his spotless record and the austere demeanour of a Chinese Communist Party cadre, nothing suggested Zhang Gaoli would be embroiled in a sex scandal with global ramifications at the age of 75.
Tennis champion Peng Shuai accused the former vice-premier (2013-18) of forcing her to have sex during a long-term on-again, off-again relationship in a message that was quickly censored on Chinese social media.
The tennis world is concerned about the player’s face, as he has not been seen in public for three weeks after making the allegations in early November.
Zhang has not been seen in public and has not responded to the allegations.
Zhang, who was born in 1946 in Jinjiang, Fujian’s southeastern province, rose through the party ranks to eventually serve for five years on the Politburo Standing Committee, which includes President Xi Jinping among its seven members at the pinnacle of Chinese power.
Zhang, the lowest-ranking member of the ruling circle and the country’s number seven, oversaw major infrastructure projects while maintaining a low profile.
During these five years, “he remained quite colorless,” according to political analyst Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“He hasn’t distinguished himself in any way, and he isn’t associated with any particular accomplishment.”
Zhang was the head of a working group on preparations for the Beijing Winter Olympics, which begin next February, before stepping down in 2018.
In June 2016, he received International Olympic Committee, President Thomas Bach, in this capacity.
Bach was the one who spoke with Peng on Sunday via video call, and she said she was fine.
Zhang was considered close to Premier Li Keqiang and, in particular, former President Jiang Zemin (1993-2003), who, despite being 95 years old, still wields some power in Beijing as the leader of the so-called Shanghai faction.
“(Zhang) was able to rise through the ranks due to the patronage of powerful leaders,” Lam told AFP.
Unlike many Chinese officials with ties to large corporations, Zhang has been quiet about his accomplishments and has not been implicated in any corruption scandals.
“His track record is relatively spotless,” Lam said.
Zhang, an economics graduate, spent much of his career in the oil sector at a state farm in the prosperous southern province of Guangdong.
His political career began in the province, first as deputy governor (1988), then as party chief in the boomtown of Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong (1997).
He went on to become governor of Shandong’s eastern province and then party secretary of Tianjin’s northern municipality.
According to a message attributed to the tennis star, he first had an intimate relationship with Peng, 40 years his junior, there around 2011.
Then, three years later, after she had competed in a tennis match, Peng claims Zhang forced her into sex at his home and that his wife was aware of it and “stood guard outside.”
Peng acknowledged her feelings for Zhang in her message, saying their “personalities match up,” and chastised him for dragging her into a toxic, secret relationship.
“You were always worried I’d hide a tape recorder,” she wrote. “You will undoubtedly deny it, or you will go so far as to attack me.”
According to her message, they remained lovers until an argument a few days before Peng posted her allegations on Twitter-like Weibo.