Paper Tiger

China’s Once-Feared Top Security Chief Zhou Yongkang Became Just a Sad Old Man

For 10 months, the fate of Zhou Yongkang existed in a space of plausible deniability. Respected Western media outlets had reported that the 71-year-old Zhou, a retired official who served as China's much-feared domestic security czar from 2007 to 2012, was being investigated for corruption and had been placed under house arrest. Chinese state media published long exposés on the alleged corrupt practices of his son Zhou Bin, and on his many associates and protégés. But they never once uttered his name.

Sometimes they obliquely called him “The Tiger,” in reference to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s oft-quoted mantra of his anti-corruption campaign: fight both flies (low-ranking officials) and tigers (the bosses). Sometimes they called him Zhou Yuangen, his original name, or the father of Zhou Bin. And sometimes they called him “You Understand, Don't You,” the phrase a government spokesman coyly used to explain why he couldn’t say more about Zhou. For Chinese state media writing in Mandarin, his actual name was too serious and terrifying to print—without confirmation from officialdom that the hammer had fallen on Zhou.



Say It Ain’t So, Zhou

It was an exchange perfectly tailored for modern Chinese politics: alternately unscripted and cagey, chummy but laced with a hint of menace. At a Beijing press conference following a Chinese Communist Party meeting in early March, a reporter for...

That taboo was broken on July 29, when China’s official news wire Xinhua released a one-sentence statement confirming that Zhou is under investigation for serious discipline violations. (In China, an official announcement of being under investigation is basically tantamount to conviction.) Soon afterward, dozens of Chinese state media outlets published articles about Zhou. And for the first time in Mandarin, they used his name.

China’s fearsome former domestic-security enforcer is now finished. Zhou is now likely under shuanggui: Chinese Communist Party-speak for an internal investigation against its own members—a process that usually involves lengthy detention and intense interrogation without any due process or legal representation.

Zhou’s downfall is a big deal. From 2007 to 2012, Zhou was a member of the Party’s top governing body, the Politburo Standing Committee. Officially, he was the secretary of the Central Politics and Law Commission, which oversees domestic security in China. Comrades with loftier titles than Zhou have been ousted before because of political infighting. Mao Zedong purged Chinese President Liu Shaoqi in 1966. Deng Xiaoping took down Wang Hongwen, who ranked third in the Politburo Standing Committee for part of the 1970s, and placed Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang under house arrest in 1989. But there are no known examples of current or former members of the Standing Committee being investigated for corruption in this manner.

However, there are still quite a few precedents for handling Zhou’s case. Three men in the 25-member Politburo have been investigated and prosecuted for corruption in the past two decades. If their experiences are anything to go by, Zhou can expect at least a year of internal investigations by the Party, followed by a formal prosecution in the judicial system, which could take months to reach a verdict. Chen Xitong was removed from his post as Beijing’s Party boss in September 1995, and a court convicted him in February 1998. Similarly, Shanghai Party boss Chen Liangyu was removed from his post in September 2006 and sentenced—to 18 years for bribe-taking and abuse of power—a year and half later, in April 2008.

In the age of social media, the current generation of Chinese may expect a public trial of Zhou, much like the closely followed August 2013 trial of ex-Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai that was broadcast online via Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. However, Bo might be the exception rather than the rule. Once dubbed China’s “only celebrity politician” prior to his fall from grace, Bo had long been known as a showman who sought out the limelight and had a solid fan base among left-leaning Chinese. Immediately after the announcement of his investigation in April 2012, rumors on Chinese-language websites indicated that Bo had refused to cooperate with the investigators—unless he received a public trial.

Zhou, on the other hand, does not seem to have the same fondness for the camera. Even in a government known for its opacity, Zhou was a mysterious presence, known for his frown and his Jack Palance-esque feats of strength: China News Service, a state-run news agency, wrote of a trip he took to a police station in Yunnan in 2007, where the then-65-year-old surprised onlookers by doing "10 sit-ups in one breath."

But the media flurry since the announcement of his indictment may be intended to humanize Zhou—to show him as a man with faults, rather than an indistinct symbol of absolute power. Along with long biographies of Zhou and his rise and fall from power that Chinese state media released on July 29, several news outlets also presented detailed and painstakingly curated photo slideshows, which contain a number of previously unreleased and surprisingly candid shots of Zhou. The news portal Sina published 21 photos, including one that may show Zhou targeted in a Mao-era (1949-1976) campaign—if true, a previously unknown setback to Zhou’s career. More impressive is the 62-photo slideshow curated by the news portal ifeng.There is a photo dated October 2010 of Zhou clasping hands with reclusive North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, looking over a crowd of an estimated 100,000 people. There are several photos of a younger Zhou in the 1980s, smiling generously at his comrades. There are photos of Zhou walking or giving press conferences with the now-disgraced Bo. But none of the photos appear to show any non-disgraced top official. The shots—common in Party pageantry—of the members of the Standing Committee standing together were absent.

The cover image shows Zhou with his eyes squeezed shut, his mouth tightened by a frown. But unlike many photos of Zhou’s frown, this one presents Zhou as a sympathetic figure, awash in his sorrows.

Zhou is no longer “Tiger,” or “You Understand, Don't You,” or a force only understandable through his relations with others. Now he is just a man. And he lost.