Why Is China Purging Its Former Top Security Chief, Zhou Yongkang?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Pin Ho:

[Zhou Yongkang’s downfall] is the second chapter of the “Bo Xilai Drama”—a drama begun at the 18th Party Congress. The Party’s power transition has been secret and has lacked convincing procedure. This [lack of transparency] has triggered unimaginably huge debates within the Party. Every retiring Politburo Standing member has been trying hard to pick their own successors. Zhou Yongkang picked Bo Xilai as the Secretary of Political and Legal Affairs. There was a hidden attempt behind this arrangement—a challenge to Xi Jinping’s power. Now, the Party is done with Bo Xilai and has started to handle Zhou Yongkang.

Xi Jinping plans to use Zhou Yongkang as a sacrifice in his anti-corruption campaign. If Xi failed to break the unwritten rule that the Politburo Standing members are immune to any legal punishment, his anti-corruption would have no teeth. Zhou Yongkang’s corruption has been well-known and people both inside and outside of the Party hate him. Thus, he has become the best tool to build up Xi Jinping’s power.


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.

As Mr. McGregor said, Xi may be becoming a powerful leader. In fact, Xi has gotten his hands on more complete political power than Deng Xiaoping. Technically, Deng ruled from behind the throne and the Politburo Standing Committee was his Grand Council.

But Xi now occupies all of the most powerful positions. In addition to the Party and the military he also controls the government, including the economy. He holds the number one positions both in fact and in name. He not only occupies the most important political position but he has distanced himself from other members of the Standing Committee. On CCTV’s news network, reports about activities related to members of Politburo Standing Committee are only broadcast after the top news and are limited to two minutes. By contrast, news reports about Xi are always in the top news and have no such time limitations.

This represents a breakdown of the whole system behind the Politburo Standing Committee. And in any case, the collective leadership system is a rare creature that has never had to stand the test of time or been tested by events. In Politburo Standing committee meetings, each member has his own axe to grind. They usually don’t oppose each other’s policy proposals and personnel appointments, because they know others will repay them in kind in the future. A collective leadership in which members only seek personal gain is not sustainable. Hu Jintao’s Standing Committee left a powder keg for Xi Jinping. If Xi dithers like his predecessor Hu, he’ll likely be the last General Secretary of the CPC.

But even as he presents himself as powerful, Xi Jinping has put himself in the most dangerous of situations, surrounded by arrogant and conceited princelings and by bureaucrats who are all talk but no action. They are good at scheming and intrigue and have their own intricate circles of power. So it will take courage and intelligence for Xi to break away from them.

In recent years, people's faith in so called “reformist” C.C.P. leaders came to naught, people don’t have the nerve to place much hope in Xi Jinping. So much less so given that during his first year in office his language and actions have echoed those of Mao Zedong, and he has so openly cracked down on liberals, to the point that some people see him as casting himself as Mao’s heir.

If this is the case, then Zhou Yongkang is just a sacrifice at the altar of Xi’s power. Xi’s is just an old-school power play. It’s no different from when [Mao] punished Xi’s father's comrade Gao Gang (former Vice Chairman of the Party), who later later won sympathy [because Mao had used him]. But he was hardly an innocent victim, he had committed all sorts of outrageous offenses when he was in power!

But what if Xi Jingping eventually proves he is truly an ambitious reformer, then how should we regard what he's doing today? Which is to say, how can you demand that Xi achieve everything all at once? If, as Mr McGregor’s logic seems to suggest he should, Xi were suddenly to clean out every corrupt official at once, he would be out of power in an instant.

To what extent Xi’s thinking is rooted in Western civilization’s political thinking, we don’t know, but his familiarity with tales of palace intrigue is indisputable. He has been reading them for decades, so he should know that if he wants to build up his power, he must first protect himself.

This is how Chinese politics is strange: because Chinese leaders (and business leaders) love reading books (some of them fictional) about the manipulations of the emperors, everyone in Chinese politics knows how to play dirty.

But people tend to underestimate the scope of a critical situation or how it might unfold. If Zhou Yongkang had seen his own fate in Bo Xilai’s troubles, if Bo had seen his own life sentence in Wang Lijun’s, would either of them have allowed themselves to be captured? Obviously, they didn't calculate well.

And at the time, Xi Jinping didn’t necessarily know what his own next steps would be. He didn’t make his choice until now. Of course, he made the right choice. Regardless of what kind of leader he turns out to be, arresting Zhou Yongkang lifts everyone’s spirits.

A good feud in the imperial court makes a great show. So let’s all find a cozy spot on the couch and wait for the next episode.