Before Zhang Gaoli was gripped by allegations of sexual assault against the tennis champion, he seemed to personify the qualities that the Chinese Communist Party values in officials: strictness, discipline, and impeccable loyalty to the leader of his time.
He moved steadily from running an oil refinery to a string of leadership positions on China’s fast-growing coastline, avoiding the scandals and disagreements that toppled other extremely ambitious politicians. If anything, he became known for his monotonous impersonality. After entering the top leadership of China, he urged people to look for something wrong in his behavior.
“Stern, restrained, taciturn,” summed up one of his few profiles in the Chinese media. Xinhua News Agency reported that his interests include books, chess and tennis.
Now, the accusation of Peng Shuai, a professional tennis player, has drawn international attention to Mr. Zhang’s private life, making him a symbol of a political system that values secrecy and controls over open accountability. This accusation raises questions about the extent to which Chinese officials carry their declared ideals of purity and integrity in their carefully guarded homes.
“Zhang personified the image of the impeccable apparatchik that the party worked hard to create,” said Jude Blanchett, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Ms. Peng’s account of Mr. Zhang forcing her to have sex for years, ongoing relationships has not been confirmed. Vigorous efforts by the Chinese authorities to suppress any mention of the issue suggest that it is unlikely that Mr. Zhang will ever be prosecuted, even if it could clear his name. Neither Ms. Peng nor Mr. Zhang have made any public comments since her post appeared.
“Unfortunately, one can imagine that such abuses are not uncommon in an opaque and patriarchal system of uncontrolled power,” Mr. Blanchett added.
When Ms. Peng, 35, posted her accusation on the popular social network Weibo on the night of November 2, she plunged readers into the bleak private lives of the Communist Party elite.
In a post by Ms. Peng to Mr. Zhang, she said that they met over a decade ago, when her career took off and his career was nearing its peak. At the time she wrote, he was the head of the Communist Party of Tianjin, a northern port city, and told her that his political position did not allow him to divorce his wife.
Mr. Zhang cut contact with her, the report said, after moving to the highest organ of the Communist Party, the Politburo Standing Committee, for five years. During this time, he was tasked with overseeing China’s initial preparations for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which are now overshadowed by a furore.
About three years ago, after retiring, Mr. Zhang called the head of the tennis academy to summon Ms. Peng to play tennis with him at a party-owned hotel in Beijing called Kangming, which she said was in her post.
Later that day, she said, he forced her to have sex at his home. They renewed their relationship, but he insisted that they remain secret. She wrote that she had to change her car to get to the government compound where he lives in Beijing. He warned her not to tell anyone, not even her mother.
Mr. Zhang, who occasionally utters a word or a hairdo, seemed unlikely to be the protagonist of a scandal that erupted around the world. He belongs to a generation of officials who grew up after the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, taking on the humble spirit of collective leadership of Hu Jintao, who preceded the country’s current leader, Xi Jinping.
Mr. Zhang, who turned 75 the day before Ms. Peng’s message appeared, was born in a fishing village in Fujian Province. According to official figures, his father died when he was a child. He began studying economics at Xiamen University in Fujiang, but his education was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution when Mao Zedong largely closed his university studies.
According to official records, in 1970 he was sent to work in oil fields in southern China, where he first filled bags of cement.
After a few years, he became a manager. When Deng Xiaoping and other leaders ushered China into an era of market-oriented reforms, Mr. Zhang became one of those officials whose economic experience and a small amount of higher education allowed them to advance through the ranks. He perfected the methodical, reserved manner of the cadre, who immersed his life in the party hierarchy.
He was the party leader of Shenzhen, a city near Hong Kong that Deng promoted as an example of China’s newfound commercial dynamism. He won the favor of Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, and by the early 2000s was in charge of Shandong, a province filled with ports and factories.
In 2007, he was named head of Tianjin, a provincial-level port whose fortunes had plummeted while other coastal areas flourished. Mr. Zhang pushed forward plans to transform Tianjin’s gray industrial zone into a modern business district, a “new Manhattan” that would attract multinational corporations and wealthy residents.
The project fell through due to debt and high expectations, but Mr. Zhang rose to the level of central leadership in 2012. He became the Executive Vice Premier: in fact, the Deputy Prime Minister of China.
“I hope that all party members, officials and members of the public in this city will continue to strictly control me,” Mr. Zhang said in 2012 as he left Tianjin for Beijing.
Mr. Zhang’s experience in managing large projects has made him a reliable pair of hands for some of the initiatives that Mr. Xi has used to make his mark. He made oil deals with Russian President Vladimir Putin and promoted Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Mr. Zhang oversaw the early preparations for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. In 2016, he met Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, while Mr. Bach was visiting the city.
It was Mr. Bach who held a video call with Ms. Peng on Sunday to reassure the athletes and others concerned about her disappearance in the days following her message.
Earlier during Mr. Xi’s rule, ominous reports of officials’ sexual misconduct appeared in state media from time to time, exposing them to show that he was serious about purging the party.
Mr Xi’s priority now appears to be to eliminate any odor of scandal plaguing the upper echelons of the party. Links to Ms. Peng’s account have been nearly erased from the Internet in China. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian suggested that the attention to Ms. Peng had turned into “angry hype.” The official media has not shown or reported on Mr. Zhang since Ms. Peng went public; they also did not dispute her version directly.
“Even denying her accusations would mean giving them a level of trust that cannot be denied,” said Louise Lim, a longtime journalist in China and author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia.
When Mr. Zhang retired in 2018, he fell out of the public eye, which is the norm in Chinese politics. Retirement often brings with it perks such as high-quality medical care, housing and travel around China, and some supervision.
“After you retire, your movements are reported to the party organization department,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of public administration at Claremont McKenna College in California who studies the party.
In her post, Ms. Peng seemed to point out that she and Mr. Zhang recently had a disagreement and that he “disappeared” again as before. However, she wrote that she expected her story to have little effect on Mr. Zhang’s fame.
“With your intelligence and wit,” she wrote, “I’m sure you either deny it, or blame me for it, or you could just play in cold blood.”
Claire Fu and Liu Yi contributed to the research.