Zhou Charges Come as Anti-Corruption Drive Hits Snags

After a near two-year running investigation, the official indictment of former state security chief Zhou Yongkang on charges of bribery, abuse of power, and the intentional disclosure of state secrets came early this month. In a report for the Wall Street Journal, Russell Leigh Moses notes that the formal lodging of charges against Zhou comes at a crucial moment—as ’s wide-reaching crackdown on seems to be facing new obstacles:

[…] Zhou’s prosecution is coming at an important moment for the anticorruption campaign. A number of signs suggest that Xi’s strategy is beginning to show its age. Specifically, it appears Xi and his supporters are having an increasingly difficult time selling the idea that Beijing’s current approach is successfully rooting out the corruption that too often plagues Chinese politics.

First, there’s the fall-off in high-profile news coverage of cadres caught being bad. China’s state-controlled media still runs stories of officials who are being investigated for possible criminal conduct, as with allegations of bribery in the Chongqing city works department and claims of graft committed by a deputy director at the main television network in Anhui province.  But the focus in recent weeks has been on the identification and extradition of allegedly corrupt Chinese officials who have fled overseas. By broadcasting about those who are hiding abroad, Beijing is trying to pivot away from the persistence of graft at home. Indeed, the more cadres that are caught in-country, the more intractable the problem of corruption has to appear

[…] Xi’s supporters have also been forced on the defensive by the argument that the anticorruption campaign is having a deleterious effect on an already slowing national economy.  A recent essay that appeared in the Communist party’s flagship newspaper People’s Daily and various affiliated outlets argued that this “misconception needed clarification,” and went on to insist that “the anticorruption effort isn’t an obstacle but a way to smooth the path of economic development by removing inefficiencies and thereby provide positive energy,” especially in the realm of public opinion.

Even anticorruption czar Wang Qishan has had to come out in the past few days to defend the effort to go after “tigers and flies,” urging more grassroots efforts to identify corrupt officials and asking for patience from the public and fellow party members because, he insisted, “changing the political ethos is not achieved overnight.”

If Xi and his allies were in complete control of the anticorruption narrative, there’d be little need to have to counter criticism of Beijing’s current strategy. […] [Source]

Late last month, The Economist profiled Wang Qishan, who Xi has placed at the helm of the corruption crackdown, as a man both widely admired and feared—”perhaps the most feared” official in the inner Party. The report also noted that highest level “tigers” yet to have found themselves in the campaign’s crosshairs have resulted in a substantial fortification of Xi’s power over the state security establishment. Recently, Xi oversaw a reshuffling of personnel in the state, Party, and Beijing municipal security agencies, in which several of the president’s long-term associates were handed key positions. A report from the South China Morning Post on the new appointments asked if Xi was working to guard himself from a threat within the Party.

Xi’s corruption purge comes alongside a stated Party commitment to uphold the in China; since the investigation into Zhou Yongkang was officially announced last year, official media has presented the case against Zhou as a step towards that goal (as has the broader establishment—a recent report from the Supreme People’s Court emphasized that Zhou had “trampled on rule by law“). While some commentators have suggested that Zhou’s case could indeed be a step towards that goal, others have indicated the exact opposite. A report from Bloomberg notes that authorities’ request that prominent legal scholar Gu Yongzhong represent Zhou in his trial could be an official attempt to signal commitment to the rule of law:

Gu Yongzhong, 59, has had discussions with the justice ministry about representing Zhou, and his appointment may be announced in the coming weeks, according to three people who asked not to be identified as the talks are confidential. Prosecutors announced April 3 that Zhou will be charged with taking bribes, abuse of power and leaking state secrets.

Appointing a lawyer for Zhou would be a further sign that officials are working to potentially bring his case to court within a few months. The choice of Gu — officials typically pick the defense lawyers in high-profile cases — would also suggest an effort at least on the surface to provide Zhou with a lawyer capable of mounting a robust defense during the trial, as officials seek to show a greater commitment to the rule of law.

Even so the party, which dictates the outcome of sensitive cases, has left little doubt that Zhou will be found guilty. He was arrested and expelled from the party in December, with leaders saying he “blatantly traded power for money and sex” and his stain “must be washed clean.”

Gu declined to comment when reached by phone. The Ministry of Justice didn’t immediately respond to a faxed request for comment about the case. [Source]

While corruption has long been one of the top public concerns in China, the campaign to eradicate it has already been noted to be diminishing once widespread interest in an official career. As public interest fades, a new study from Chinese employment website Zhaopin suggests that many more posts could soon be vacant as over 10,000 officials look for work outside of the bureaucracy. The Wall Street Journal’s Chun-Wei Yap reports:

More than 10,000 civil servants are looking to quit their jobs, according to a report by the local employment website Zhaopin, which found new sign-ups from government employees have spiked since the Lunar New Year in late February.

Those numbers, which rose 30% from a year ago, are startling for a profession once regarded by the Chinese as a highly sought-after lifelong sinecure.

[…] What gives? The Zhaopin report gave a vague explanation for the decline, pointing to “affected ability to fulfil one’s potential in the civil service.” Stagnating pay is also a problem, the report said.

Perhaps more pertinently: President Xi Jinping’s war on corruption among officialdom has meant sharp curtailments on civil service perquisites. Government jobs are no longer as lucrative or cushy. Official cars for lower-ranking mandarins have been nixed. Gifts for civil servants, from alcohol to mooncakes, have become a target for graft-busters. [Source]

In terms of the corruption sweep’s public approval, it has long been noted that Xi’s overwhelming popularity has partly been won by his anti-corruption campaign. The New York Times’ Austin Ramzy surveys the many corruption-related jokes circulating Chinese social media, noting that while many indicate sustaining public support for the crackdown, others emphasize its absurdity:

President Xi Jinping’s aggressive effort to curb graft has inspired a wave of political jokes, most of which are generally supportive of the campaign and mock the unscrupulous officials targeted by investigators. Some hint at the shortfalls in the system that have allowed graft to thrive. Others paint the crackdown as a farce.

But the growing comedic collection suggests that the Chinese have realized that the crackdown is no passing fad, and that they might as well have some fun with it.

[…] Some jokes refer to the bleakest aspects of the corruption crackdown, such as the deaths of suspects under investigation. […] [Source]

Click through for the Times’ translated collection of corruption related jokes.

For more on Xi’s anti-corruption drive, see more recent coverage from The Diplomat. In one post, Shannon Tiezzi looks into the mysterious state secrets that Zhou has been charged with leaking; in another Bo Zhiyue asks if Zhou will be “‘crucified’ to cleanse the Party“; and in another recent post Bo explains how corruption and a retaliatory use of family guanxi toppled both Nanjing’s mayor and Party secretary.