Investigation of Former Security Chief Zhou Yongkang Announced [Updated]

Xinhua announces the long-anticipated investigation of China’s former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang:

The investigation of Zhou, a former Standing Committee member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, for suspected “serious disciplinary violations” will be conducted by the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).

Top leaders are resolved to target both high-ranking “tigers” and low-ranking “flies” in their anti-corruption effort. After taking the helm at the CPC in November 2012, Xi Jinping has led efforts in fighting corruption, calling on the whole Party to stay on full alert, and describing corruption as a threat to the Party’s very survival. Xi vowed that there would be “no exceptions”: No leniency will be meted out no matter who is involved.

The downfall of a “big tiger” like Zhou could have a deterrent effect on Party members and corrupt officials who believe they are immune.According to the CCDI website, around 40 officials of provincial and ministerial level or higher have been investigated for corruption or other serious disciplinary violations since November 2012. [Source]

The announcement follows the months-long dismantling of Zhou’s network of allies, associates and family members, including his son—arrested on Tuesday after being detained since December—and sister-in-law. The targeting of this group is widely seen as a matter of factional infighting, though the precise balance of factors behind it is disputed.

Reuters’ Benjamin Kang Lim and Ben Blanchard gave more details on the charges and likely course ahead:

[A source with ties to the leadership] said Zhou had been accused of corruption involving family members and accepting bribes to promote officials.

“Not all charges against Zhou would be made public,” added the source, who requested anonymity to avoid repercussions for speaking to a foreign reporter without authorisation.

[…] It was unclear if Zhou would eventually be indicted.

“If that happens, there won’t be a high-profile trial like Bo Xilai’s,” the source with ties to the leadership said, referring to the purged party boss of the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, whose trial the government provided regularly updated – though likely censored – transcripts for.

Any trial could also be some way off. Zhou would first have to be expelled from the party and then have formal criminal charges filed against him, which could take several months or longer. [Source]

Even the formal announcement of the probe is a colossal event in China’s politics. From Felicia Sonmez at AFP:

Zhou is the most senior member of the Communist Party to be investigated since the infamous Gang of Four – a faction that included the widow of founding leader Mao Zedong – were put on trial in 1980.

[…] The decision will have been preceded by extensive negotiations within the factionalised ruling party, but is still likely to send shockwaves through the political establishment.

[…] “There is an unwritten rule that they will not go after former members of the Politburo Standing Committee,” said Willy Lam, a politics specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“The party elders like Jiang Zemin and Li Peng and so forth were opposed to incriminating Zhou Yongkang,” he said, referring to China’s former president and premier.

“It shows that Xi Jinping is powerful enough or resourceful enough to convince the party elders,” he added. [Source]

On the other hand, political analyst Zhang Lifan told The Telegraph, “it has taken such a long time, so you can see how strong the forces opposing Mr Xi are.”

Lam told The Financial Times that the unwritten rule had “provided a mutual protection clause for top leaders and allowed for orderly transitions of power [….] Now this rule has been broken Xi has given himself a powerful card he can use against political enemies. But it also means that everyone is fair game.” Zhou was reportedly targeted for attempting to subvert the succession conventions by prolonging his own power, but their outright violation may make such maneuvering more likely in future:

As seismic an event as Zhou’s fall is, he may not be the biggest tiger in Xi’s sights. Already, there has been speculation that with Zhou’s clique down, that of Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao could be next. The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore notes suggestions that former Premier Wen Jiabao will be targeted following the uncovering of his family’s wealth by The New York Times:

Several commentators suggested, despite his high rank, Mr Zhou may not be the ultimate target of Mr Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.

“His case is big, but Wen Jiabao’s case is bigger,” said one observer, who cannot be named because of reprisals from the Communist party. “But it is hard to tell whether they will go after Wen because his case implicates so many others,” he added, referring to China’s former prime minister.

“Wen’s case is hanging over the Party ever since the New York Times exposed his family wealth,” said another commentator, referring to an investigation which claimed Mr Wen’s family had amassed £1.5 billion in assets. [Source]

Meanwhile, William Farris notes that while a block on Sina Weibo searches for “Zhou Yongkang” has been lifted (unless in conjunction with “Xi Jinping”), another has taken its place:

Updated at 22:09 PDT:

The headline reads “Investigation into Zhou Yongkang filed by central authorities.”

The news has released a pent-up torrent of profiles, timelines and other infographics providing background on Zhou’s career, downfall and alliances. At China Real Time, Chuin-Wei Yap surveyed online reactions:

The Chinese-language hashtag “ZhouYongKangPutUnderInvestigation” rapidly rose to the top of microblogging service Weibo’s top trending items, scoring 4.3 million views barely two hours after the news broke. State broadcaster China Central Television’s post on the probe was reposted more than 14,000 times within an hour of the news.

[…] While most of the exuberance was limited to taking casual note of Mr. Zhou’s fate, some bloggers went cautiously farther in summing up the public mood of anticipation. “This is just lifting up one corner of the pot,” Ren Zhiqiang, a well-known property developer with a wide Weibo following, said on his verified blog. [Source]

At South China Morning Post, Cary Huang wrote that Zhou may be the last of his rank to fall:

Although the case sends a message the party will not hold anyone above the law, other past and current members of the [Politburo Standing] committee were unlikely to become a focus of Xi’s anti-graft campaign, analysts said.

The president remains limited by the principle of collective leadership, which arose under Deng Xiaoping as a way to end the political chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

[… The University of Nottingham’s Professor Steve] Tsang said although Xi had built up immense political capital, he “very much doubted Xi is also targeting other leaders like Wen and Jiang at the moment”.

“If there is any real indication of that as a possibility, Wen would have worked closely with Jiang to block the detention of Zhou,” Tsang said. “I do not expect other retired PSC members to be put in the same situation as Zhou.” [Source]

But at The Financial Times, Minxin Pei argued that the Party would now be more fearful and fractured than ever:

[…] Because practices such as giving cash gifts to gain official appointments and promotions and helping private businessmen secure contracts are widespread inside the party, a very large number of Chinese officials dread being hauled in for investigation or worse. The Chinese media has already noted a recent rise in the number of officials who have committed suicide.

[…] Mr Xi’s campaign has engendered an unprecedented degree of fear among Chinese officials. In politics, fear is a unifying force. If many of Mr Xi’s colleagues and rivals believe that they could be the next tigers to fall, their survival instinct might motivate them to challenge Mr Xi’s authority. The unity of leadership that has held the party together since Tiananmen could evaporate. [Source]

Fear, though not factionalism, was also a theme in a series of state media articles and commentaries on the announcement, which cast it as proof that no one is above the law. From China Daily, for example:

Until late on Tuesday, many doubted Xi and his colleagues’ readiness to take such a politically risky step.

One of the foremost reasons for such doubts was the suspicion that revealing abuse at the very top risks undermining public confidence in the CPC and the system. That Xi and his colleagues have finally chosen not to exempt Zhou from disciplinary scrutiny speaks volumes about the present leaders’ loyalty to their pledge of leaving no safe haven for abusers of power.

Besides convincing the doubters, Zhou’s fate will send shudders down the spines of other abusers who may be entertaining the illusion that their high positions and retirement will protect them. [Source]

Other examples can be found at Global Times (which noted that Zhou has been ominously stripped of “comrade” status) and Xinhua.

To hammer the point home, authorities announced (as anticipated) that rule of law will be the central theme of October’s Fourth Plenum. From Xinhua:

The Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee will discuss “governing the country according to law” on every front, it was announced after the Tuesday meeting, presided over by the CPC Central Committee’s general secretary, Xi Jinping.

It was agreed that the rule of law is a must if the country will attain economic growth, clean government, culture prosperity, social justice and sound environment, and realize the strategic objective of peaceful development.

A statement after the meeting said that the rule of law is an intrinsic requirement of socialism with Chinese characteristics and crucial to modern governance. Governing according to law holds the key to the CPC’s leadership, the people’s well-being, deepening reform and long-term stability. The statement emphasized, that governing according to law has become more significant in the entire agenda of the Party and the nation, due to new circumstances. [Source]

Human Rights Watch’s Sophie Richardson interpreted the news of Zhou’s investigation differently, however:

[… L]ike the 2013 prosecution of Bo Xilai, a top Community Party leader felled by a scandal involving bribery, embezzlement, and abuses of power, the investigation and expected prosecution of Zhou should not be confused with justice or the rule of law. Like Bo, Zhou has been detained for months outside of any formal legal process. Like Bo, the initial investigation of Zhou will be carried out by the Party, not the judicial authorities. And, like Bo, if Zhou’s case is actually transferred into the formal court system, it is equally unlikely that any of the basic legal protections that exist on paper – access to evidence, right to counsel of choice, and freedom from coerced confession – will apply.

There will almost certainly be another level of injustice in Zhou’s prosecution: that the victims of his abuses are unlikely to be able to bring cases against him or those who carried out his orders. The leadership’s imperative, as past cases have shown, will be to prosecute Zhou in way that serves their political aims, which means creating an impression of combating corruption. Will those people disappeared by police, beaten by urban para-police, imprisoned in black jails, or – irony of ironies – charged with “disturbing public order” for calling independently for corruption investigations during Zhou’s tenure have their day in court? [Source]