Peng Shuai’s attack draws attention to China’s political elite

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Zhang Gaoli may have been remembered as a reformist cadre who did their part in easing China’s rise out of poverty and who represented a rejuvenated nation and even held talks with Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin.

But a sexual assault allegation brought by tennis star Peng Shuai caught the 75-year-old in the international #MeToo sensation and drew attention to the mysterious network of alliances in the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party.

For Zhang, the question is whether the scandal originates from an individual and will ultimately be erased from history by state censorship, or whether it will become the basis of an ongoing attack by rivals to overthrow his network of influential allies.

In its 100-year history, the CCP has proven that lines of patronage and loyalty, not merit or wrongdoing, ultimately determine whether an officer rises or falls. The misfortune of a senior official can be a bad sign to the cadres closest to them.

The party’s internal disciplinary body, the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection, also accuses elites of sexual misconduct in purges.

According to a China-focused academic who wanted to remain anonymous, the conflicts between the factions were “much weaker” under President Xi Jinping than in earlier times when the CCP’s ruthless power struggles spilled over into the public sphere.

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

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

Peng disappeared from the public eye this month after accusing 40-year-old Zhang of sexually assaulting her at least once in Tianjin, the city where he held a party leadership position from 2007 to 2012.

The reappearance of the three-time Olympian through a controlled series of state media videos and a carefully worded statement from the International Olympic Committee has heightened awareness ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February.

But Peng’s plight may inevitably be mired in the ruthless power games at the head of the Chinese government.

“When ‘political factors’ are involved, Peng’s situation becomes much more complicated and the international public relations aspect of the regime becomes less important,” said Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.

“You don’t want this international PR disaster right before an Olympics that seems complicated anyway, but when it comes down to it, the stability of the regime trumps it all,” he said.

Zhang’s tenure on the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest political body, ended in 2017 and his post as vice-premier ended a year later. However, indications of Zhang’s future may lie in the relationships made decades ago in the happy days of China’s economic development.

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

He headed the Guangdong Economic Commission through the late 1980s and into the 1990s before serving for nearly 10 years as the provincial lieutenant governor and four years as party secretary of Shenzhen, the heart of China’s technology industry.

As he rose through the ranks, he was “largely seen as a protégé of Jiang Zemin and Zeng Qinghong,” according to a profile of Cheng Li, a party leadership expert at the Brookings Institution.

Jiang was China’s president after Deng Xiaoping. Zeng was Jiang’s vice president and right-hand man. While immensely powerful in their prime, their influence seems to have waned under Xi.

But Jiang remained a “unifying point” for various cliques within the party, said the Chinese academic. “There are many different groups that have nothing in common other than their potential opposition to Xi Jinping. That’s why Jiang Zemin is so important. “

Zhang has been associated with business leaders including Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing. According to Brookings’ Cheng, Zhang married a classmate from Xiamen University. Her daughter married the son of Lee Yin Yee, a wealthy Hong Kong businessman.

He has been involved in state land deals with groups like Evergrande and Fantasia, noted analysts at Cercius Group, a Montreal-based consultancy that specializes in Chinese elite politics. The two are among the most heavily indebted real estate groups in China, both are headquartered in Shenzhen and are now struggling to survive.

While Zhang was not considered a rival to Xi when he took office in 2012, his broader network of relationships could now prove critical to his future.

According to Cercius, Zhang “had nothing to do with Xi – of course he“ played ball ”. . . but that’s it ”.

“Zhang has never been identified as an ally of Xi in the academic arena of elite Chinese literature, in elite Taiwanese Chinese literature, or even in Hong Kong-based analysis. . . Zhang is pure ‘jiang-pai ‘“Said the consulting firm, referring to the informal name of the elite faction loyal to Jiang Zemin.

Victor Shih, associate professor at the University of California San Diego, noted that Zhang had worked for years with Politburo members Li Hongzhong and Zhao Kezhi, Minister of Public Security.

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

Zhang’s seniority meant he was promoting others as well, which means a wider group of now-rising officials could be affected by his possible demise, experts said.

Shih suggests that this list could include Finance Minister Liu Kun; Wang Menghui, Minister of Housing and Urban Development; Niu Yibing, deputy director of the powerful Internet guardian Cyberspace Administration of China; and Zheng Yanxiong, chief of the new Hong Kong National Security Bureau.

Still, experts are unsure whether the allegations against Zhang will be enough to overthrow him.

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

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