By Nectar Gan and Steve George
Before retiring as vice premier, Zhang Gaoli was the face of China’s organizing efforts ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
As the head of a government working group on the Beijing Games, Zhang inspected venue construction sites, visited athletes, unveiled official emblems, and held meeting after meeting to coordinate preparation work.
He received International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach at the leadership compound in the Chinese capital in 2016, promising to make the Games “fantastic, extraordinary and excellent.”
But now, three years into his retirement and less than three months before the Olympics, Zhang has found himself at the center of an explosive #MeToo scandal that has prompted global uproar — amplifying calls for a boycott of the Games that he helped organize.
Zhang, 75, was accused earlier this month by Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, 35, of sexual assault at his home after he retired three years ago. The two-time Grand Slam doubles champion also alleged a relationship with Zhang over an intermittent period that spanned at least a decade.
“Why did you have to come back to me, took me to your home to force me to have sex with you?” Peng alleged in a since-deleted social media post dated November 2.
“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.
Chinese authorities rushed to muffle Peng with blanket censorship. But as weeks went by, the women’s tennis world began to demand answers as to Peng’s whereabouts — as well as a full investigation into her allegations against Zhang.
Amid growing global concerns about her safety and well-being, individuals working for Chinese government-controlled media and the state sports system released a stream of “proof of life” photos and videos of Peng.
Bach, the IOC president who has been photographed with Zhang on at least one occasion, held a video call with Peng under the close watch of a Chinese sports official, during which the three-time Olympian insisted she is “safe and well” and wanted to have her “privacy respected.”
But Beijing has avoided any mention of Peng’s sexual assault allegations, with censors blocking all CNN broadcasts on this story in the country.
All the while, Zhang has remained completely outside of public view, and he has not issued any response to the accusation.
Since retirement, Zhang has kept a low profile and faded from public life, and there is no published information relating to his current whereabouts. CNN’s repeated requests for comment from China’s State Council Information Office — which handles press inquiries on behalf of the central government — have gone unanswered.
Who is Zhang Gaoli?
While in office, Zhang had cut a dull, rather unremarkable figure — even by the standards of the Communist Party, where senior officials typically follow a tight script while on official business and stay out of the spotlight in private.
In photos and on state television, he was rarely seen wearing any expression, and always sported impeccable slicked-back, jet-black hair — a hairstyle traditionally favored by senior Chinese officials.
According to a 2013 state media profile, Zhang enjoyed tennis, reading and playing Chinese chess in his spare time.
“There was nothing outstanding about him. He’s a standard technocrat trained and cultivated by the Chinese Communist Party system,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor of an official party journal who now lives in the United States.
“He had no notable achievements, nor was he involved in particular scandals — he had been a bland figure without any controversy.”
Even after he officially became one of China’s seven most powerful men, Zhang seldom stood out among his colleagues on the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, where he served alongside President Xi Jinping from 2012 to 2017.
But his low-key personality belied a tremendous power. As vice premier, he was in charge of aspects of China’s economy, its energy sector and Xi’s signature Belt and Road initiative — as well as preparations for the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Unlike Xi, who was born a “princeling” — a child of communist revolutionary heroes — which gave him inherent status and prestige within the party, Zhang came from a modest background.
Born in 1946 into a farmer’s family in a small seaside village in the southeastern province of Fujian, Zhang grew up impoverished. His father died before he turned 3 years old, and he helped his mother with farm work and fishing from a young age, according to state media reports.
But Zhang studied hard and was admitted to the economics department of Xiamen University, a prestigious institution in his home province. When he graduated, China was