With the arrest of former security chief Zhou Yongkang, Chinese authorities have implicated dozens of Zhou’s business and political associates and family members who have also been targeted by government investigators. Zhou’s case has become the focus of the ongoing crackdown on corruption, and its final resolution may demonstrate to the public how far Xi Jinping is willing to take the campaign as well as his administration’s pledge to implement rule of law. From Ouyang Yanqin at Caixin:
The spectacular downfall shed light on a web of corruption which revolved around Zhou, and has implicated many of his former aides and close associates in key positions in government departments and state-run companies.
Before the arrest of the 72-year-old Zhou, at least 39 people with ties to Zhou have come under investigation for graft and at least 20 have been handed over to police.
What they have shared in common is that these disgraced officials have either worked with Zhou in the country’s lucrative petroleum industry, or risen through the ranks in Sichuan Province and held positions in the powerful police force, considered Zhou’s three power bases. [Source]
Many other former associates who are still in positions of power have declared public support for the decision to prosecute Zhou and expel him from the Party. Keira Lu Huang reports for the South China Morning Post:
“[We] have to self-consciously safeguard the party’s unity. [We] are firmly against nepotism and forging political circles,” read the Sichuan provincial party committee’s statement after a meeting on Friday afternoon.
The meeting – which came hours before Xinhua announced Zhou had been expelled from the Communist Party for breaching discipline, committing graft and leaking state secrets – was held to convey the party’s decision on Zhou to the committee, the official Sichuan Daily reported yesterday.
At the meeting, the committee pledged to right the wrongs that Zhou had wrought on Sichuan’s politics and economy. It would learn a hard lesson from Zhou’s case, the committee said.
Units across the military have also declared their support for the party’s decision, the PLA Daily reported yesterday, highlighting voices from the Chengdu and Jinan military commands, as well as the paramilitary police. [Source]
Zhou is the first member of the Politburo Standing Committee to be criminally charged for corruption. He became a focus of official investigators following the downfall of former Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai, who was a close political ally. As Xi Jinping continues his corruption crackdown, some observers are questioning whether corruption itself is the ultimate target, or if Xi is just shoring up his political power. Deutsche Welle interviewed writer and lawyer Rebecca Liao about the case:
Is the crackdown on Zhou mainly about fighting corruption?
Behind every corruption crackdown there is some sort of political decision. That said, the main message the party wants people to take away from this is that it is sincere in its promise to go after both tigers and flies. Members of the Politburo Standing Committee were considered safe from prosecution, but no longer.
To which extent could his downfall be linked to his connections with Bo Xilai?
Zhou was Bo’s closest political ally on the Politburo Standing Committee, possibly his only champion. While the rest of his colleagues were figuring out how to silence Bo’s rogue campaign to ascend to the highest echelons of political power, Zhou supported him.
The expectation was that if Bo made it to the Politburo Standing Committee, he would take over Zhou’s role as Secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission. The connection with Bo could not have helped Zhou, but it is hard to conclude how much it contributed to the crackdown.
What message does Xi want to send to potential challengers?
If there were any doubts that Xi was firmly in control of the party, they have been put to rest. Zhou’s former power bases – Sichuan local government, the oil industry and the state security apparatus have all publicly voiced their condemnation of corruption in the days leading up to and since Zhou’s arrest.
Zhou had probably long since ceased to be a threat to Xi, but it certainly does not hurt Xi to demonstrate his authority with a significant example. [Source]
At the Fourth Plenum in October, the Party laid out a blueprint for its vision for the implementation of “rule of law.” But analysts are now looking toward the trial of Zhou as a litmus test to see whether the government fulfills promises of greater government accountability, Cary Huang at the South China Morning Post reports:
Xigen Li, an associate professor at City University’s department of media and communication, said that through his handling of Zhou’s case Xi had delivered a powerful message to both serving and retired senior officials that their positions and connections would not protect them from the consequences of their wrongdoing.
But it remained to be seen whether the decision on Zhou was a turning point in government accountability or was intended merely as a warning to corrupt cadres. “The case is sending a powerful message that Xi is serious about rooting out graft among the elite ‘tigers’ as well as lowly ‘flies’,” Li said.
Analysts also noted that before the formal investigation was announced, the party had dismantled Zhou’s power base, which spanned the oil industry, the Sichuan provincial party, the Ministry of Public Security and the legal affairs establishment. [Source]
Given Zhou’s deep and expansive ties at the highest echelons of Chinese power, any investigation into his illicit activities could quickly implicate others high up in the Party and government, and indeed the system as a whole. At the South China Morning Post, Minnie Chan writes that one of the charges leveled against Zhou – revealing state secrets – could be used as a way to keep his trial behind closed doors to avoid embarrassment for the Party:
“In China, it’s very difficult to define what’s a state secret. As a former member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, anything Zhou unwittingly told anyone around him could be a ‘state secret’,” [Beijing-based political commentator] Zhang [Lifan] said.
He said the state secrets claim was just an excuse to depart from the open hearings of Bo’s trial. Bo was sentenced to life in prison last year on charges of bribery, corruption and abuse of power.
“Bo’s open hearing was not good because Bo’s public image was not destroyed by it. If Zhou doesn’t want to cooperate with the authorities, he could embarrass the central leadership,” Zhang said.
Chen Daoyin , from Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said the state secrets referred to in the statement could be “some internal discussions about an upcoming Politburo personnel reshuffle”. [Source]
Chinese media has been tightly scripted in its coverage of Zhou’s arrest. But at China Real Time, Russell Leigh Moses writes that the way the government chose to release the news may indicate continued discord at the top of the Party ladder about how to handle his case:
But what is surprising is the awkward way Beijing handled both the announcement of Zhou’s expulsion, and official explanations of the decision to banish him. Taken together, they hint at a Chinese leadership that may not be in complete agreement about setting in motion the highest-level criminal prosecution of a Communist Party figure since Gang of Four show trials in the early 1980s.
News of Zhou’s expulsion and arrest was delivered by the official Xinhua news agency on midnight Friday. The party’s internal investigators referred him to prosecutors after determining he had leaked state secrets, taken advantage of his position for personal gain and engaged in adultery, Xinhua said.
The timing of the news release was puzzling. While China’s state-controlled media has recently developed the habit of issuing major political news late in the day on Fridays — allowing little time for reflection and reaction by officials and the public — the announcement about Zhou’s expulsion was especially sluggish, coming well after the evening news programs had concluded.
State media have trumpeted the Zhou case as an example of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s determination to put no one above the law as he seeks to cleanse the party through a vigorous anticorruption campaign. If Beijing was looking to garner political capital from the party ranks or public applause for Zhou’s arrest, releasing the news that way was a bizarre way to go about it. [Source]