Chinese Official Accused of Sexual Assault Played Key Role in Setting Up Beijing 2022 Olympics

Chinese Official Accused of Sexual Assault Played Key Role in Setting Up Beijing 2022 Olympics

12:33 - Zhang Gaoli, accused of assault in a post on tennis star Peng Shuai’s social-media account, headed a steering committee to land the Games

A video call between the head of the International Olympic Committee and Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai is casting renewed spotlight on the former senior official accused of sexual assault in a post on the athlete’s social media account—who played an important role in arranging the upcoming Winter Olympics.

Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier and retired member of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo Standing Committee, kept a relatively low profile for an official of his rank. But during his time in office, he was regarded as a powerful and skilled technocrat, and was tasked with handling some of Beijing’s highest priorities, among which was managing China’s bid for the 2022 Games.

Mr. Zhang headed a steering group to “guide, support and supervise the 2022 bid,” according to IOC documents. The steering group included the “heads of all relevant ministries,” the documents say, and his role in it put him in contact with the highest ranking Olympic officials, including IOC president Thomas Bach.

Chinese government announcements also identified Mr. Zhang as head of the steering group, saying he gave instructions on everything from stadium construction to transportation before he handed the job to his successor in 2018.

The sexual assault allegation against Mr. Zhang, 75, first surfaced in a Nov. 2 post on Ms. Peng’s verified account on the Twitter -like Weibo platform. The post disappeared after roughly 20 minutes, and searches for her name on popular Chinese social-media platforms have been blocked ever since. Fellow players and tennis officials were then unable to reach or locate Peng for over two weeks, which led to a global outpouring of concern for her well-being and saw the Women’s Tennis Association threaten to pull future events from China.

Mr. Bach chatted by video with Ms. Peng on Sunday, which led the IOC to conclude that she was “safe and well.” IOC athletes commission head Emma Terho joined the call, which was arranged at IOC request hours after Ms. Peng had made her first appearance in public since the sexual assault allegation at a tennis tournament in Beijing.

The IOC said Ms. Peng, a three-time Olympian, asked for privacy in the wake of the sexual-assault accusation. Ms. Peng has not personally spoken about the accusation since it was posted, and her agency has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Prior to the call, with the WTA and others focusing on Ms. Peng’s whereabouts and safety, Mr. Zhang had received relatively little attention. That changed shortly after Mr. Bach’s video chat, when a 2016 photo of the IOC president shaking hands with Mr. Zhang during a meeting in Beijing began to circulate on social media.

“The Chinese government attaches great importance to the preparations of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games,” Mr. Zhang told Mr. Bach during the meeting inside the Communist Party’s secretive leadership compound, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

“Like representatives of governments, companies, international organizations and many others, IOC representatives meet regularly with their counterparts. This is public knowledge,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said.

China’s State Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Leading the Winter Olympics steering group was part of Mr. Zhang’s portfolio as vice premier, a role that included greeting foreign officials and helping set financial and industrial policies. In addition to his government role, he served as one of seven members of the Communist Party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee from 2012 to 2017. Prior to that he was Communist Party secretary of Tianjin, the coastal port city that is also Ms. Peng’s hometown.

Born in a poor fishing village in the southeastern province of Fujian, Mr. Zhang was an economist by training who climbed the party ranks by quietly shepherding technological innovation and economic growth in key areas, including the showcase city of Shenzhen in Guangdong and the large manufacturing base of Shandong Province.

During his time as one of China’s top leaders he was widely known for his wooden presence on state television and perpetually blank expression, the result of an injury to his face sustained in a car accident many years ago, according to a person familiar with the issue.

He deliberately cultivated a low profile, according to Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an American investment banker who recalled meeting Mr. Zhang in a 2009 book, “How China’s Leaders Think.”

“Results count more than words,” Mr. Kuhn quoted Mr. Zhang as saying.

But behind the scenes, Mr. Zhang was more complex than his public persona suggested, displaying a rich sense of humor and often cracking jokes, according to people who interacted with him. In state media, he was portrayed as a lover of literature and tennis.

The Nov. 2 post on Ms. Peng’s Weibo account said the tennis star and Mr. Zhang had sex once seven years earlier, when he was still the top official in Tianjin, and that he cut off contact with her after being called up to Beijing. Mr. Zhang contacted her again shortly after he retired, the post said, then invited her to his home and forced her into sex.

From that point on, the two began a three-year affair, according to the post, during which they talked about history from ancient times to the modern era, and had wide-ranging discussions on economics and politics.

“We played chess, sang, played table tennis, played pool and also played tennis together,” the post said. “We always had endless fun.”

The two later argued and the retired official begged out of a talk they were supposed to have on Nov. 2, according to the post. “You disappeared again, just like seven years ago,” it said.

China’s government has not addressed or acknowledged the sexual-assault accusation. Though it isn’t uncommon for members of the Communist Party elite to have extramarital affairs, Mr. Zhang is the first figure of his stature to face such a public allegation of sexual assault.

Still, government insiders say they don’t believe the allegations amount to a big scandal for the party. While the outcome is difficult to predict, they say, the party rarely puts top-level officials under investigation, and never for sexual misconduct alone.

In 2013, Chinese leader Xi Jinping broke a longstanding taboo against investigating former Standing Committee members when he approved the detention of former security czar Zhou Yongkang, who later pled guilty to corruption and was sentenced to life in prison. Although the government later accused Mr. Zhou of having a mistress, sexual misconduct was not listed among his crimes.

News of the accusation posted on Ms. Peng’s Weibo account has been completely censored inside China. None of the country’s state-run media outlets have mentioned it except on Twitter, which is blocked in China.

Ensuring the Winter Olympics come off without a major disturbance is a priority for Mr. Xi, who intends the Games to serve as a global showcase for the Communist Party and its achievements, according to some political analysts.

Prior to the sexual-assault accusations against Mr. Zhang, human-rights activists had called for a boycott of the 2022 Games in light of Beijing’s policies in minority-dominated regions like Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as its crushing of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

President Biden has said the U.S. is considering a diplomatic boycott, while China’s Foreign Ministry has criticized what it calls attempts to politicize the Olympics.

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