Zhou Yongkang’s Downfall

A ChinaFile Conversation

On July 29, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Chinese Communisty Party announced it was investigating ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang “on suspicion of grave violations of discipline.” Zhou, who retired from the Politburo Standing Committee in 2012, is the first member of that body, the Party’s elite inner circle, to face such an inquest for corruption and abuses of power. We asked contributors for their reactions to the news.—The Editors 


When the announcement was made on July 29 that Zhou Yongkang had been officially placed under investigation, it came so late that it was almost anticlimactic. Rumors had been aired as early as Spring 2012 that he had been involved in a coup attempt with Bo Xilai and that he had cast the lone pro-Bo vote in the standing committee meeting that decided Bo’s removal in March 2012. In the spring of 2013, it was rumored that a special Politburo meeting held in December 2012 shortly after the 18th Congress had approved a special investigation group under the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China to target high-level leaders. The South China Morning Post, under the editorship of Party-reformer Wang Xiangwei, has been aggressively marketing “leaks” about the alleged investigation into Zhou Yongkang since August 2013. The long delay, and the repeated “leaks,” demonstrate two things: strong resistance within the Party to formalizing the investigation and aggressive new marketing techniques (“leaks”) inside the Party to make the decision irreversible. 

In a People’s Daily op-ed, the investigation is presented as a sign of opening: “Cleaning out corruption is a necessary act to deepen reforms.” Liberal commentators seem to want to be sanguine: Du Daozheng and Wu Si of the monthly journal Yanhuang Chunqiu (China Through the Ages) both write that removing the immunity of former Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) members is a step towards rule of law. However, no decisive argument is presented by them proving that Xi Jinping is not simply settling a factional score. Wu Si concedes that “in order to confirm that this is not a return to Maoist ‘hidden rules‘ but the independence of justice… we not only need more cases, we also need institutional guarantees.” Wu then scales back his argument one notch, saying that at the very least, tackling the immunity of former PBSC members puts an end to the control of former leaders over present leaders, and in this sense represents a step towards bringing institutional practice in line with constitutional rules.

There is, however, another possibility. As I have suggested previously, Xi Jinping has consolidated power by making symbolic gestures to various political groups and interests, inside and outside the Party, balancing them one against the other. The decision to publicly investigate Zhou, judging by the time it took to announce it and the means employed, must have encountered huge resistance. Even as it reached the final stages, new rumors were floated about the possible targeting of Jia Qinglin, Zeng Qinghong, and even Jiang Zemin. One day after the announcement, Reuters wrote that the CCDI is sending inspectors to Shanghai to investigate associates of Jiang Zemin. A People’s Daily op-ed entitled “Netting ‘Big Tiger’ Zhou Yongkang is Not the Final Stop to Fighting Corruption” was scrapped from the Internet within 24 hours. There seems to be great anxiety that the anti-corruption campaign may become uncontrollable and degenerate into a full-fledged factional battle.

By shaking up the unwritten rules that have prevailed since Deng Xiaoping consolidated power, Xi Jinping is taking a political risk. In exchange for the immunity that PBSC members were granted, they were expected to retire at the end of their term, and to remain loyal to collective decisions. If immunity is denied, both of these tenets may begin to be questioned. Why should powerful leaders retire if they can then be targeted? Why should they accept decision by consensus if they can later be made to pay the consequences (as is alleged in Zhou’s case with the vote on Bo Xilai)? They may be better off spending their terms gathering compromising material on other colleagues. Xi Jinping no doubt understands the risk, and believes it must be taken because the Party’s legitimacy is in danger. However, by disturbing the carefully crafted institutional balance, he runs the risk of overplaying his hand.

I agree with the many who believe Xi Jinping has adopted a high-risk strategy. All but Xi and Li Keqiang retire from the PBSC in three years time; there will also be retirees from the Politburo. Are those retirees not going to wonder about their fates when they are no longer in office in light of what has been happening in Xi’s first term? Since corruption is a major reason for indictment, how many of them can feel safe?

Mao had the legitimacy to divide and rule, to pick off his opponents one by one and group by group in 1966-67, with nobody daring to ally with colleagues because Mao was against cliques. I find it difficult to believe that Xi, however self-confident, has yet established his authority over his peers to prevent any of them from deciding to unite against him.

I completely agree that Xi probably expended tremendous amounts of political capital to bring Zhou Yongkang down, and that this may very well deepen political divisions and mistrust within the Party leadership. That said, the overall political math for Xi is somewhat more complicated and, at least, to me, profoundly ambiguous: He has very likely galvanized his supporters within the Party and, perhaps more importantly, seems to be generating a massive wave of personal popularity among the general population. For example, if the Weibo commentary on Zhou’s investigation is any indication, the anti-corruption campaign appears to be a smashing success in the court of popular opinion, a few notable cynics notwithstanding. Xi himself, according to the Pew Research Center, enjoys almost absurdly high approval ratings (92 percent, compared to 28 percent for Obama, and 44 percent for Putin).



Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright

Isaac Stone Fish & David M. Barreda from EG365
The greatest unsolved mystery in China right now is not the disappearance of Malaysian airliner MH370 but the fate of Zhou Yongkang, the feared former head of China’s security apparatus. From 2007 to 2012 a member of China’s top political body, the...

Whether, and to what extent, this translates into additional political capital for Xi is unclear from the outside, but if he is indeed taking a page or two from Mao’s political playbook, he will probably try much harder to utilize it than his stoic and technocratic predecessor. If he is somewhat successful, there is at least some chance that the political “rules” we have become accustomed to over the past three decades will be significantly revised, and there could once again be a truly populist element in Chinese high politics. This may seem rather farfetched at the moment, but then again, a political system so heavily reliant on “unwritten rules” was probably never that stable to begin with. Even if Xi is reluctant to play the personal popularity card, the previous comments have made it quite clear that he has already ventured into uncharted political waters.

You don’t need to spend long in Beijing to realize at least one thing about Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption purge and the felling of the former state security czar, Zhou Yongkang. This is an immensely popular campaign.

Every random person I talked to over two weeks this summer said they were happy to see senior party officials bought to account. Such anecdotal evidence is backed up by the gleeful reaction online.

Sinocism’s Bill Bishop reported that traffic on Caixin magazine’s website surged ten-fold after the news broke. Caixin, of course, has been covering the story better than anyone else. It helps that Caixin’s editor and pioneering journalist Hu Shuli has long had good relations with the head of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission, CCP’s anti-graft body, Wang Qishan, from his time in the finance sector.

As to whether Xi’s campaign to capture crooked “tigers and flies” in the CCP is more of an old-fashioned purge than a genuine effort to weed out corruption, it is obviously a bit of both. For a leader who has vowed far-reaching economic change, it is also popular politics which may help in the implementation of difficult reforms.

From the outside, the toppling of senior party officials could seem to be damaging the CCP. From Xi’s point of view, I think the opposite is the case. He believes he can install his own people in the positions vacated by the outgoing officials and strengthen the party overall in the process.

As Steven Tsang of the University of Nottingham noted, these two things “are mutually reinforcing from Xi’s point of view.”

A few other points worth noting:

—Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, was very much first-among-equals on the Politburo Standing committee; Xi, by contrast, has exhibited an instinct for grabbing power from the outset of his first term. As a way for intimidating any potential challengers, there are few better tools than an anti-corruption campaign, especially one run by an official of the standing and forcefulness of Wang Qishan. (Wang, incidentally, does not have children, which means his own family is unlikely to make him vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.)

—The big question remains: where does it all end? It isn’t just officials who worry they might be targeted who are asking this question. One reason why the CCP insists on doing its corruption inquiries in-house is that any independent investigator could rummage through its affairs at will, without worrying about broader political stability, or, in other words, the impact on the party’s monopoly power. That is why all corruption inquiries are first of all, politically-sanctioned, and then quarantined. This latest investigation has already gone much further than most would have predicted at the outset, but with Zhou’s formal detention, it is also a good bet that it has peaked.

—This campaign is moving offshore in a big way. This is interesting on a number of levels. Remember, the party’s anti-graft body has no legal status. It enforces party discipline which extends beyond mere laws. But with this current enquiry, what is effectively an extralegal body is exerting extraterritorial powers. Caixin has already reported how PetroChina’s Canadian investments have been caught up in the Zhou investigation. The CDIC is also dispatching its investigators to other nations in search of the assets of “naked officials,” the term given to officials who have children and spouses living on their families’ ill-gotten gains abroad. Some countries are likely to quietly welcome the CDIC’s help. Just remember how China’s effort to extradite Lai Changxing, the fugitive from the billion-dollar Xiamen smuggling scandal, from Canada was caught up that country’s courts for years after he fled China in 1999. The case severely damaged Sino-Canadian relations for a decade. Countries such as Australia and New Zealand, favorite destinations for “naked officials,” do not want to have bi-lateral relations held hostage to domestic Chinese politics surrounding corruption. Hence, they have an incentive to quietly co-operate with the CDIC. Other counties may do so as well.    


Pekingology seems to be making a comeback in international commentary about the formal investigation of former Chinese security chief Zhou Yongkang. In the days of foreign academics and journalists having to do their China Watching from afar—when there was a lack of direct access to the country—Pekingology focused on the rise and fall of notable political figures. Reading Chinese government announcements, observers tried to judge each political player's staying power. Every major development was both personal and political in nature. Little was considered public policy in the usual sense of the term.

To be sure, Zhou is not the only high-profile figure in the Chinese government who is suspected of corruption. In the age of Internet blogging, the rumor mill of Chinese politics—both in- and outside China though often most accessible in the Chinese language—is never short of stories. Time and again, what begins as a rumor gets eventual, if only partial, confirmation by the authorities, leading to understandable questions about selective and politically-driven punishments.

The time has come, however, for international commentators to stay away from conventional Pekingology and view China's current anti-corruption efforts squarely as a policy issue facing any country and its government. Increasingly, corruption in China takes place in and has consequences for jurisdictions beyond China. As such, corruption in China not only distorts the normal operation of the domestic economy but also can cause irregularities in the economies of the countries with which China trades. Therefore, it is in the interest of Chinese law-enforcement agencies to collaborate with foreign governments to bring corrupt Chinese individuals to justice, whether or not they are officials.

A case in point is the handling of Lai Changxin. In 2011, after lengthy diplomatic negotiations between China and Canada, Lai was extradited back to China to face justice. In his fight against extradition, Lai and his lawyers claimed Beijing had persecuted him for his politics. In fact, Lai was known to be the target of a corruption investigation targeting high-ranking officials. Throughout Lai's struggle to stay away from China, Chinese back home viewed Canada as harboring an economic criminal.

In 2005, China ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption, a ready vehicle for enlisting the support of its signatory governments to collaborate to keep corruption in check among officials, no matter their rank. There can be no sheltering of corruption. Period.


With the public announcement that the party will investigate former internal security chief Zhou Yongkang, Xi Jinping’s 600-plus day anticorruption campaign has reached a critical stage. Heretofore, Xi has vigorously attacked on two fronts, one focused on rank and file “flies” and mid-level “foxes,” the other on high-level “tigers.” The latter which includes the attack on Zhou and his protégés, has garnered the greatest interest and fueled debate about the nature of corruption. Many dismiss Xi’s campaign as a political purge disguised as an anticorruption campaign.

Xi clearly has used the campaign to take out Zhou, who was seen as a political threat. The much less glamorous detention of hundreds of senior officials and tens of thousands low-level bureaucrats and cadres is nevertheless a critical part of Xi’s attack on corruption. But this is really just a continuation of a three-decade-old war on corruption. What Xi did in late 2012 was to escalate that open ended-fight. That part of the campaign will likely continue.

But is Xi going to keep hunting big tigers? There is increasing talk of displeasure and mounting opposition from the party. Officials are said to be anxious and fearful. Suicides are rumored to be rising and college graduates are shunning civil service careers. Officials are reportedly immobilized, unable to make decisions. Others are said to be preparing to flee by sending their families—and their loot—overseas. Some suggest that the campaign is hurting the economy and accelerating the gradual slowing down of the economy. More recently, several media outlets on the mainland have hinted there is a threat of a “counter attack” by an unnamed cabal of “big tigers” and “old tigers.” Other rumors claim Xi promised the retired party strongmen that he would stop hunting tigers after he bags Zhou, or that he had to announce the Zhou investigation before the upcoming plenum because he feared that the party would reject it.

Xi certainly has incentives to terminate the tiger hunt. Not only does he face the possibility of pushback, an attack on additional “old tigers”—retired leaders—has the potential to split the party, convince the public that the party leadership is rotten, and hence that the entire system is bankrupt, which would negate Xi’s hopes to bolster regime legitimacy by showing that the party can—and will—fight corruption wherever it is found. But the campaign, and particularly the takedown of Zhou, is said to be very popular and that the public wants to see more tiger pelts. Backing down and settling for Zhou, moreover, could make Xi seem weak and intimated by the big and old tigers.

Xi, in short, is in a difficult position, particularly if he hopes to push through new reforms at this fall’s plenum and it is unclear if we will see another 600 days of deadlock and a return to corruption as usual. The trajectory of the campaign over the next few weeks and months will reveal a lot about Xi’s political fortunes and future.