Tea Leaf Nation

Zhou Decline Watch: Comparison with Bo Xilai

Tracking the downfall of one of the most feared men in China. 


The annual meetings of China’s congress, and top advisory body Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), known colloquially as the "Two Meetings," are in session. On March 14, 2012 at these same meetings, then Premier Wen Jiabao made a vague remark about averting "historical tragedy." Many interpreted the remark as a swipe against Bo Xilai, then the powerful party boss of the metropolis of Chongqing, and a member of the Politburo — even though Wen did not mention Bo by name. Powerful Chinese leaders, like Wen and current President Xi Jinping, probably saw Bo as a threat to their power. A day later, Bo was publically removed from his Chongqing post, shocking many at the speed at which his career unraveled. Censure and arrest soon followed. After a brief trial in the summer of 2013, Bo was sentenced to life in prison for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power.

Fast-forward to March 2, 2014, in a press conference in the lead-up to this year’s meetings. Now its not Bo but rather the far more powerful Zhou Yongkang, the former head of China’s security apparatus who is almost certainly under investigation for corruption, who is the unspoken presence at these meetings. (Here’s background on the slow-moving downfall of Zhou, who may have been Bo’s most important ally.) The most momentous occurrence at that press conference was a quip included in a CPPCC spokesperson’s oblique response to a question about Zhou’s fate: "you know what I mean, right?"

The expression has since become the way in which many Chinese media outlets writing about Zhou refer to him — his name is still too sensitive. Phoenix TV, a popular Hong Kong-based television station, used this lingo on March 5, asking their guest Wang Yukai, a professor at the prestigious Peking University who serves on the committees on a number of government organizations: "Since the Two Meetings have started on March 3, the most popular expression is "you know what I mean, right?" What do you think about that?"

Wang, unprompted, took this as an opportunity to bring up the specter of Bo. "I think this has some differences between the way the Bo Xilai case was handled," he said. Instead of first mentioning Bo and then building a case against him, Wang said that for Zhou, it’s "peel it back layer by layer, peel it back until all the common people" understand the expression "you know what I mean, right?"

Why it Matters: Comparing Zhou to Bo, whose very public downfall stunned many Chinese in 2012 and 2013, implies an increased likelihood that Zhou will face a public reckoning, or possibly even a trial. Wang’s views do not necessarily reflect the dominant strand of thinking in Beijing — and he is, of course, only one voice — but they are a compelling reason as to why the government may be methodically laying the groundwork before announcing anything against Zhou. "When punishing top officials, if you don’t have a large amount of facts that can subtly influence the common people, they might find it too sudden, or difficult to accept," Wang said. "Even if you don’t say his name, you bring the facts out, giving everyone a tacit understanding." That way, "there won’t be too many opposing voices."

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He is on sabbatical from Foreign Policy Magazine. @isaacstonefish

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