Chinese are whispering about the possible downfall of Beijing's J. Edgar Hoover. Why won't they talk about it out loud?
It was an easy story to miss.
On Feb. 22, the Beijing newspaper China Business Herald, citing an anonymous source, reported that PetroChina International Vice President Shen Dingcheng had been missing for weeks. As a single point of data, the story means little. But the disappearance of Shen (which dozens of other Chinese news outlets covered) is likely another piece of the still unfolding and maddeningly opaque saga of Zhou Yongkang. Shen, it turns out, served as Zhou’s secretary for part of the 1990s. Formerly one of the most powerful men in China, Zhou ran China’s state security apparatus as a member of the Politburo Standing Committee — the top Communist Party body — from 2007 to 2012. Now, the party is almost certainly trying to bring him down: Reportedly under house arrest, the 71-year-old Zhou hasn’t been seen in public since October, and dozens, if not hundreds, of men connected to him have been arrested.
Zhou’s case — if there is indeed a case against him — is arguably the most important Chinese corruption investigation in decades, if not in the People’s Republic of China’s 65-year-history. Yet — and here’s the maddeningly opaque part — we can only hypothesize about the what, when, why, and how of “the case.” This murky struggle, playing out behind closed doors throughout China, is inaccessible to those outside China’s elite. Even the “who” isn’t confirmed: Beijing has not announced Zhou is under investigation, nor have any Chinese officials said on the record that Zhou is under suspicion, and domestic Chinese media doesn’t dare to print Zhou’s name in articles about the investigations of his subordinates. But even if we cannot know for certain what is happening to Zhou, his fate deserves our attention. If Zhou falls, it could shift both the public perception of the party and the balance of power among its elites. It could strengthen the party, split it, or hasten its collapse.
At this stage — and in part because of Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping’s admonition to fight both corrupt “flies” and “tigers,” low-level bureaucrats and high-ranking officials, respectively — many are using the metaphor of a net tightening around Zhou. But perhaps it’s more useful to picture a different type of net.
Imagine a giant wall on a secluded floor in a Beijing office tower housing the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the powerful organization tasked with investigating malfeasance and corruption within the Communist Party. Now, imagine Zhou’s name in the center of a web of hundreds of intersecting lines — a much larger version of the type seen in police stations in U.S. mafia movies. In China, the term guanxi wang — “network of connections” — refers to a person’s social circle. The web on this wall is Zhou’s network, and the threads connect to those with whom Zhou intersected throughout his career: as an oil industry executive in the 1980s and 1990s, as party secretary of China’s largest southwestern province of Sichuan from 1999 to 2002, and then as minister of public security until 2007, when he took on his most powerful role.
Shen is one of those threads. According to the China Business Herald report, Shen served as Zhou’s secretary in the 1990s at the behemoth state-owned enterprise China National Petroleum Corp., before rising to become a top PetroChina official. There have been at least 10 people in PetroChina of “department level or above,” a fairly high rank on the Communist Party hierarchy, to have disappeared or been investigated, the article states.
Shen is the fourth of Zhou’s former secretaries — other lines in his network of connections — believed to have fallen. But further obfuscating matters is the Chinese media’s failure to print Zhou’s name. Like mafia foot soldiers afraid to testify against their boss until they know for sure he’s been disgraced, none of the wide Chinese coverage of the arrests mention Zhou’s name. “The four [fallen officials] all worked at different times as secretaries for a high-ranking official who has since left office,” reported the Oriental Morning Daily, a Shanghai newspaper; Hexun, a Chinese financial portal, used the same language. The popular web portal Sina even posted a chart of the hierarchy of those four officials — without putting Zhou at the top.
Even among the secretive world of Chinese officials, we know exceedingly few details about Zhou. One thing we do know is that Zhou liked to demonstrate his physical strength. “When he’d go places for investigation, he’d do like 50 or 100 push-ups” in front of others, a Chinese academic who lives overseas and is familiar with elite politics told me, which I quoted in an earlier story I wrote about Zhou. In August 2007, two months before he ascended to the Standing Committee, Zhou visited a police station in south China’s Yunnan province. He surprised onlookers by doing “10 sit-ups in one breath,” after which everyone “spontaneously burst into applause,” according to China News Service, a state-run news agency. During an interview in December, I asked former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who has met with Zhou, what his impressions were of him. “He’s roughly 6 feet tall,” he said with a smile.
But understanding as much as possible about the situation that may be befalling Zhou is crucial because he looms at the nexus of nearly all the crucial debates about China’s future. Because as a Standing Committee member he ran the Central Political and Legislative Committee, overseeing China’s legal system and police force, he played an especially large part in rule-of-law issues, including those concerning social tensions in Xinjiang and Tibet, treatment of Chinese dissidents, and control of China’s Internet. And he was probably a patron of Bo Xilai, the former party boss of Chongqing who endured a public (for China, at least) disgrace after being sacked in early 2012.
It is still unknown if Beijing will risk allowing the public to glimpse the undersides of these struggles via a public accusation followed by a trial, as it did with Bo from February 2012 to August 2013. Zhou may wither away under house arrest or in prison, never to be heard from again. One hint that Beijing may be moving toward a trial is that on Feb. 20, prosecutors finally brought charges, including murder and “Mafia-style conspiracy,” against tycoon Liu Han, who disappeared last March. An English-language article in the party-run newspaper the Global Times titled “Sichuan billionaire mafioso prosecuted” detailed that Liu had a “a powerful patron,” — presumably Zhou, though the article didn’t mention him by name. But the business magazine Caixin did link Liu to Zhou Bin, the only known son of Zhou Yongkang. Zhou Bin “is deeply involved in the country’s hydropower and oil businesses” and is a “former top leader’s son,” Caixin reported on Feb. 21 — but again, it did not mention Zhou Yongkang by name. (Reuters reported in December that Zhou Bin is complying with the alleged investigation against his father, while the Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post reported in January that the son may face a trial over charges of bribery.)
The story of Zhou has — almost as if by design — trickled out via a series of hints, details, and rumors, difficult to connect and nearly impossible to confirm. An Oct. 11 Financial Times story, published just after Zhou’s last public appearance, proclaimed confidently, “Net closes on former China security chief.” A follow-up story, after months of arrests, speculations, and rumors, was more cautious. “China has placed two high-ranking officials under investigation in moves that appear to close the net more tightly around the country’s powerful former security chief,” reported the Financial Times on Feb. 23. Probably the most accurate description of that which is actually confirmed comes from Reuters, which stated that the Feb. 24 announcement of the sacking of a vice police chief with ties to Zhou came as “speculation intensifies” about Zhou’s fate.
Zhou may be in trouble because Xi sees him as a threat to his power. Perhaps Zhou is being punished for his presumably close relationship with the much lower ranked Bo, now serving a life sentence for abuse of power, bribery, and corruption. Or maybe Zhou is actually far more corrupt than his peers and is thus more deserving of an investigation? “Whatever excuse they give for [the fall of] Zhou, it will never be the real reason,” said human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who has been one of the few people in China to speak publicly about Zhou. The true cause of Zhou’s downfall, Pu said, is an elite power struggle — for which people like Shen are just one thread among many.