Through the fog of factional war that invariably envelopes any top-level corruption investigation in China, we can be clear about one thing if Zhou Yongkang is in fact the target of an official graft probe.
Xi Jinping’s willingness to take on a once-serving member of the Politiburo standing committee will confirm the assessment a number of China experts have already made of him—that he is a singularly powerful leader; certainly the most powerful General Secretary of the C.C.P. since Deng Xiaoping.
Equally, a formal graft probe, if confirmed, will not be evidence of something else being bandied around by some commentators—that Xi is finally “getting serious” about corruption.
Under C.C.P. rules—in which the party catches and kills its own, through its own internal justice system, free of any of the constraints of the law (such as it is)—corruption probes inherently are political decisions. An investigation of someone as senior as Zhou is thus a high wire act, requiring Xi to not only get the support of serving members of the inner sanctum but also the informal council of elders who are consulted on sensitive issues. To secure such consensus, Xi clearly has lots of power, and balls.
Zhou is no small fish. The trail of the investigation so far has walked the world through his power bases—the sprawling province of Sichuan, where he was once the top official; the “petroleum mafia,” once-impregnable fortresses of the big state-owned oil giants, which have deep military connections; and finally in the state security establishment, which he oversaw under Hu Jintao.
I suspect the threshold decision to take on Zhou was made concurrently with the move against Bo Xilai. Bo’s unforgivable sin was to buck the system and campaign openly for a position on the standing committee. Zhou’s apparent support for him meant that Bo’s fall made him a marked man as well. But still, Xi has clearly let the investigators have their head, as evidenced by the detention of various senior executives in the oil industry, and also Zhou’s own son.
Why, then, given the audacity of Xi’s move, could anyone suggest he is “not serious” about corruption?
Prosecutors, and prosecutions, even in democratic systems, can be tainted by politics. But in China, politics trumps all other considerations. Certainly, Xi’s anti-corruption rhetoric seems to have put some five-star restaurants out of business, as state and private businesses cut back on ostentatious entertaining. In Wang Qishan, he has an exceptionally tough head of the CCP’s anti-graft body. But still, there is no good reason other than power politics for why Zhou and his family should be investigated instead of, say, that of the outgoing premier, Wen Jiabao, or perhaps even members of Xi's own family, Both have amassed enormous wealth, chronicled in detail by The New York Times and Bloomberg News, yet they remain untouchable.
So while we shouldn’t shed any tears for Zhou Yongkang—it couldn't happen to a nicer guy, as the saying goes— let’s equally not pretend Xi is ushering in a new era of fearless prosecution of graft.