Tea Leaf Nation

It’s Time to Tear Up China’s ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ Cards

It’s Time to Tear Up China’s ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ Cards


What follows is a translation of a blog post originally published in Chinese. –The Editors

On July 29, 2014, the other shoe dropped squarely on Zhou Yongkang, China’s former security czar. Zhou is now under internal investigation by the Communist Party for "serious violations of [party] discipline," according to a cable from state-run Xinhua News Agency, a milestone in the party’s anti-corruption campaign, ongoing since January 2013. But the party has still not gone far enough.

At the height of his power, Zhou was thought to have a "get out of jail free card" for any wrongdoing. Zhou controlled China’s domestic security, judicial, and intelligence systems. The budget allocation for the areas under his purview was rumored to exceed that allotted for national defense. During his long career, Zhou also managed the country’s highly profitable petroleum industry and set his roots deep within the party apparatus of western Sichuan province, where he served as party boss for years. On top of it all, Zhou was a member of the elite Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), a small group of men (once nine, now seven) who run China. Over the past two decades, there has been an unspoken rule among party elites that once someone makes it to the PSC, he will not be investigated or prosecuted — even after retirement. Zhou’s fall from grace means that this rule is now broken.

The tacit code that shielded members of the PSC from prosecution particularly included current members. When those in power go astray because of a lack of checks and balances, it is usually extremely difficult to correct the wrong while they occupy their posts. Justice usually goes into hiding when political power reigns; most of the time, only when political power is weakened or ceded can judicial proceedings get into gear.

Going the last mile to combat corruption means breaking that barrier as well: allowing disciplinary authorities to investigate or even prosecute current members of the PSC and take away their "get out of jail free card" too. This radical step would finally subject the most powerful seven men in China to the same standard as others. This could help prevent corruption from happening in the first place, and would constitute the most crucial step towards reforming the foundation of China’s current political system.

The April 2012 investigation and September 2013 prosecution of former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai for corruption and abuse of power was a step in the right direction. The investigation began while Bo was in office; he was ultimately removed from his post and his abuses were stopped in their tracks. But Bo had never ascended to the PSC; the closest Bo got was the Politburo, a group of 25 Communist overseers. In the past 25 years, only a handful of Politburo members have been purged, including former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong, former Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu, former Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xu Caihou, and Bo. Zhou is the first retired member of the Standing Committee to be investigated for corruption in more than two decades.

But authorities have not gone far enough in their work, not even with Bo. While he was punished for graft, he never fully answered for the abuses of power he committed while in charge of Chongqing, and it has been hard for the victims of Bo’s corruption and extra-judicial campaigns against organized crime to seek redress. In Zhou’s case, if we fail to reexamine the legal black hole created by his "stability maintenance" programs — a euphemism for a system that included censorship and extra-legal detentions — the delayed justice meted out to him will not mean much.

Zhou’s case presents an important opportunity to reform the leadership system of the party and our nation, which is a necessary step if we are to fully establish rule of law in China. The core objective of reform is to completely rebuild a system in which power is highly concentrated in the hands of few men, with neither checks nor balances. Only with democracy and the rule of law can we have an orderly transition of power on a regular basis, overseen by an independent judiciary and other regulatory bodies. At the end of the day, democracy and the rule of law are the best auto-correct for our political system.

Translated by Rachel Lu.