Tea Leaf Nation

Say It Ain’t So, Zhou

Say It Ain’t So, Zhou

It was an exchange perfectly tailored for modern Chinese politics: alternately unscripted and cagey, chummy but laced with a hint of menace. At a Beijing press conference following a Chinese Communist Party meeting in early March, a reporter for Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post had just asked party spokesman Lu Xinhua whether foreign reports about the imminent downfall of Zhou Yongkang — once the country’s feared security chief, Politburo Standing Committee member, and part-time oil baron, whose investigation for corruption was only officially announced July 29 — were true. Lu gave a nervous laugh.

"In fact, I’m like you; I’m getting my information from media reports," he began, to laughs from the assembled press corps. But Lu soon reverted to form, reading from scripted remarks that 31 high-ranking bureaucrats who had acted "contrary to law and party discipline" had already been punished. "It doesn’t matter who you are, how high your position is." Violators would be "punished severely, and this is absolutely not an empty statement." That was his entire answer, Lu explained. He concluded with a beseeching gesture, and added, "you understand." The crowd broke into laughter again.

It was a light moment, but its significance was not lost on anyone in attendance: a central government official had just acknowledged that Zhou was in trouble. It not only gave rise to a new Chinese Internet meme, with "you understand" becoming code for the name many then dared not write or speak. It also preceded a slow drip of domestic media coverage that lent credence to earlier foreign reports of Zhou’s imminent career demise — particularly a December 2013, Reuters report that quoted anonymous sources saying Zhou had been placed under house arrest — and muted, highly coded Chinese social media chatter that touched obliquely on the Reuters report and the rumors surrounding Zhou.

In early March, just two days after the now-famous presser, China’s Tencent news portal published purported flyover video of Zhou’s family compound, although the article was focused on son Zhou Bin. That same month, Beijing News reported that a "task force" had arrested Zhou’s brother, Zhou Yuanqing, and his wife. And in July, state news service Xinhua reported that Jiang Jiemin, once a high-ranking oil executive connected to Zhou, was under investigation for breaking the law. He had "fallen from his horse," the report read, Chinese slang for a disgraced official. Each subsequent report, high-profile arrest, and public affront to the Zhou family tore yet another chunk from the tattered edges of the security czar’s once-formidable web of influence and patronage.

It’s unclear whether the slow procession of reports touching on the man many netizens also took to calling "Master Kang" — a brand of noodles that happens to share part of Zhou’s given name — was part of a grand media strategy. If so, it was a masterstroke, at least from the perspective of a leadership determined to ensure that Chinese media bolster party control. President Xi Jinping had promised in January 2013 to go after both "tigers and flies," meaning officials high and low, who were guilty of corruption. By the time state-news services announced that Zhou was under investigation for "serious violations of party discipline" — with investigation almost certainly leading to charges and eventual conviction — the fall of tiger Zhou, once a political rival to Xi, was widely seen as a fait accompli. Within hours, Chinese mainstream media had flooded Weibo, China’s Twitter, with retrospectives, infographics, and long-form analyses that had obviously been prepared in advance and then held for publication, much the way media outlets treat obituaries for statesmen. Few grassroots comments evinced anything approaching surprise.

That’s not to say Zhou isn’t a hot Weibo topic. Over 1.3 million comments mentioning "Zhou Yongkang" have proliferated less than 24 hours after the years-long ban on his name was lifted. Particularly popular are close readings of the damning 76-word announcement, a typically terse entry from the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, an organ that totes a stick large enough to bludgeon the most powerful cadre but speaks softly enough to elicit everyone’s inner Kremlinologist. One popular theory — shared by observers as diverse as state mouthpiece newspaper People’s Daily and feisty independent journalist Luo Changping — is that the press release’s failure to call Zhou a "comrade" means that his expulsion from the party is inevitable.   

They are correct, of course; even without knowing what charges will be filed against Zhou, it’s all but impossible to imagine Zhou keeping his party membership, or even his freedom. That explains why many users are, to quote just one, "not the least bit shocked" at the recent revelations. More noteworthy is how the fundamental debate about Zhou’s downfall eerily echoes that surrounding one-time rising star Bo Xilai’s April 2012 expulsion from party ranks: to wit, whether the culling of a corrupt man (and some of his cronies) is better than nothing, or actually undermines rule of law and trust in the party by allowing the victors in a power struggle to solidify their gains by throwing rivals in the brig. 

The Weiborati appear split on this central question, just as they once were with the far more popular Bo. Many were happy to see Zhou brought down. One wrote that it constituted a "huge victory," even if economist Liu Shengjun fumed that Zhou "can’t avoid responsibility for his role in setting back the rule of law" during his time in power. Another cheered "for this country’s bright tomorrow," because the time had apparently arrived "to bid goodbye to the era of unbridled power." Yet another lauded the president, writing, "long live boss Xi!"

Others felt that that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign was mere cover for a political purge, or what one called "extraordinarily intense [power] games in the background." In response to the widespread celebration about Zhou’s fate, one user asked, "Who are you cheering? It’s still not supervision by [political] opposition," meaning that the party’s power, and thus the opportunities for graft it affords, remain essentially unchecked. According to another, the major question isn’t whether Zhou is a big tiger, as he surely is, but whether there "are little tigers who are right now growing up." One even advanced the unpopular argument that fallen officials such as Zhou — who elicits almost no sympathy in Chinese social media, or anywhere else — are "tragic figures from head to toe" because they "have no legal means to fight back."

Zhou — who likely now sits in the dreaded legal limbo reserved only for the party’s fallen, known as shuanggui — probably has few legal options at his current disposal. But cadres in his position years hence may face a different scenario. As many netizens noted, authorities released the news about Zhou almost simultaneously with the announcement of the fourth party plenum in October, one that state broadcaster CCTV claims will "comprehensively promote the role of law." It remains to be seen exactly what that means. It could bring an element of due process into party disciplinary proceedings, which currently operate outside the law. It could require party officials to disclose assets, a request at the top of many citizens’ wish lists, but one unlikely to be granted soon. Or it could simply reaffirm the party elite’s current approach: using law as one of many tools to bring opponents to heel.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Sidney Leng, and Rachel Lu contributed research.