Zhou Yongkang: Has Xi Nabbed a “Tiger?”
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Zhou Yongkang: Has Xi Nabbed a “Tiger?”

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When Xi Jinping began his anti-graft campaign to clean up corruption in the Communist Party of China (CPC), he promised to go after both “tigers” and “flies;” that is, both high-ranking and low-level officials. Now it appears that Xi is close to nabbing his first tiger—and it’s more like a whale.

The South China Morning Post reported on Friday that the CPC has opened up a corruption probe into former Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member, Zhou Yongkang. According to the Hong Kong-based newspaper, the decision to open the probe was agreed upon by current and retired Party members at their annual summer meeting at the resort of Beidaihein in Hebei province.

Until stepping down in November, Zhou was one of China’s most powerful leaders as his position as chairman of the Central Politics and Law Commission made him China’s “security czar.”

For months there have been rumors and speculation that Zhou would be targeted by the new leadership. This really began with the downfall of Bo Xilai, who was a patron of Zhou. In fact, before the string of events that led to Bo’s downfall last spring, Zhou was widely (though not universally) believed to be grooming Bo to be his successor as the security czar on the PBSC.

Zhou was also one of the few senior Party members that is believed to have defended Bo until the end. Indeed, at the National People’s Congress in 2012 Zhou appeared with Bo on numerous occasions. The end of the NPC would be the last time Bo was seen in public until his trial began last week.

Zhou was also supposedly a mentor to Wang Lijun, Bo’s security chief who fled to a U.S. consulate in February 2012. Zhou and Wang both served in Panjin City although Zhou is much more senior and thus already a high-ranking official by the time Wang was serving there. Nevertheless, Wang reportedly helped protect Zhou’s patrons in the city and Zhou reportedly returned the favor by helping him get promoted.

In fact, Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang reported in their recent book that, according to “a businessperson well connected with the Ministry of Public Security,” Zhou was the one who had recommended Wang to Bo after the latter became secretary of Chongqing.  

The rumors that Zhou would be targeted by the new leadership continued to gain credence after the leadership transition in November as more and more of Zhou’s allies and protégés were detained, which is usually a prelude to a senior official themselves getting arrested. For example, numerous officials and businessmen from Sichuan province—where Zhou served as Party Chief from 1999-2002— were apprehended— most notably, the former vice governor Guo Yongxiang who also was Zhou’s long-time secretary.

More recently, the Chinese government has begun cracking down on China’s oil industry and arresting many of its executives. Notably, Zhou maintained close ties to the industry, which is where he is said to have made a fortune by abusing his political power.

Although the investigation into Zhou is unlikely to yield the same type of “juicy” storyline of the Bo Xilai case, it in some ways will be more important to Chinese politics. As the SCMP report points out, “No Politburo Standing Committee member – retired or sitting – has been investigated for economic crimes since the end of the Cultural Revolution nearly 40 years ago.”

Thus, if Zhou is prosecuted it is likely to profoundly impact the nature of leadership transitions in the future. As Alice Miller and others have argued, leadership transitions in China have become increasingly institutionalized, which has allowed them to proceed much more smoothly than in the past. Still, outgoing Party leaders try to place their allies in key positions to protect themselves and their families once they are out of power. The scramble to do this will be more intense if there is a recent precedent of a former PBSC member being prosecuted for things that he did in the past.    

In the worst-case scenario, some senior Chinese leaders may resist retiring out of fear of the consequences of them losing power. Were they to be successful, this would disrupt the mandatory retirement age that has prevented the Chinese political system from stagnating in the way the Soviet Union did from being run by a succession of elderly, out-of-touch men.  

The CCP understands this and will likely take steps to signal that Zhou’s case is the exception to the rule of PBSC members enjoying lifetime immunity from prosecution. This shouldn’t be too difficult given that, while Zhou may be officially prosecuted for economic crimes, this is at its core a political case. Specifically, Zhou’s support for Bo is almost certainly the reason why he has been selected as the “sacrificial lamb” for Xi’s anti-graft campaign.

Indeed, the Financial Times’ Jamil Anderlini has reported that following Bo’s downfall, Zhou was forced to make a humiliating confession to senior party leaders, and his powers were greatly curtailed even before he stepped down as security czar in November. Anderlini also reported that Zhou’s support led senior party members to exclude him from choosing who would be named to the Politburo and its Standing Committee at the 18th Party Congress.

To limit the impact Zhou’s case has on future senior level Party politics, the CCP will also likely limit the actions taken against him and his family. The key is to take enough action to appease the public without creating paranoia among current and future senior leaders. 

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