The Purge

After the fall of Bo Xilai, will the much more powerful Zhou Yongkang survive?


The five-day trial of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power ended on August 26 with a command performance from the man who, with his extremely public downfall in early 2012, tore a hole in the Communist Party’s façade of unity. Despite Bo’s virtuoso showing, where he managed to portray himself as competent and sympathetic, the ink has mostly dried on his fate. The court will announce the verdict any day now, according to the state-run broadcaster China Central Television, and Bo is almost certain to be found guilty. But he’s not the only one brought low. Many of his supporters in the Communist Party and the military are thought to have been purged. The biggest remaining question of the Bo affair is what will happen to Zhou Yongkang, the feared former security chief who former New York Times Beijing correspondent Nicholas Kristof once described as "a man who brightens any room by leaving it." Now, the net may be closing in on him: On Sunday, the Communist Party announced an investigation into Jiang Jiemin, a senior official in charge of state-owned companies and a protégé of Zhou’s, in a move many see as further encroaching on Zhou himself. Bo’s public downfall was shocking; Zhou’s would be unprecedented.

Zhou oversaw China’s security forces and law enforcement institutions from 2007 to 2012, and was widely reported to have been the only top Chinese official to argue against removing Bo from the elite decision-making body, the Politburo. The organization Zhou ran, the Central Politics and Law Commission, might have asked Bo to cover up the defection of his former police chief Wang Lijun, according to The New York Times. Zhou became increasingly influential as ethnic riots broke out in Tibet in 2008, and in the restive region of Xinjiang in 2009. Beijing was convinced of the importance of maintaining social stability. As the budget on domestic security kept growing — in 2012 it reached $111 billion, nearly $5 billion higher than the entire official military budget — so did Zhou’s power.

Zhou, who oversaw China’s immense security state, was like a Chinese Dick Cheney; the power behind the throne, said a Western academic familiar with the matter. He also said that former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, a man known for his extensive surveillance network, "might have had" Zhou’s reach. Officially, Zhou was the least powerful of the nine-member Standing Committee, the elite subgroup within the Politburo. But when I spoke with this academic in 2010, Zhou was probably the third most powerful man in China, behind President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, exponentially more influential than Bo.

The 73-year-old Zhou reportedly liked to show his power by feats of physical strength. "When he’d go places for investigation, he’d do like 50 or 100 push-ups" in front of others, said a Chinese academic who lives overseas and is familiar with elite politics. In August 2007, 2 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.  

Despite these showy feats, Zhou is known to be extremely secretive, even by the opaque standards of a top Chinese politician. Rumors have long swirled around Zhou and his family, including his son Zhou Bin, now rumored to be under investigation, according to a source familiar with the matter, and his wife, thought to have died under mysterious circumstances, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Little is known about Zhou, his relationship with Bo Xilai, and how that may have led to his apparent sidelining after Bo’s very public fall from grace in early 2012. But, clearly, he is not loved in China. In May 2012, a group of Communist Party veterans published a bold open letter calling for the removal of Zhou for having supported Bo. In February, human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang found his accounts on three Chinese microblogging sites suspended after posting that Zhou "wrecked the country and ruined the people" by mismanaging China’s security apparatus.   

Like other officials around his age, Zhou stepped down from the Standing Committee in November 2012 — top Chinese politicians have a surprisingly strict retirement policy. The next Standing Committee downgraded Zhou’s position to the regular Politburo. Kerry Brown, a China specialist at the University of Sydney, called the move a "very big rebuke to Zhou." Since then, Zhou has mostly stayed out of sight, leading to reports from overseas Chinese news websites, which aren’t always credible, that he is under investigation.  On Aug. 30, The South China Morning Post, a Hong-Kong based English newspaper with a better track record on elite politics than its peers, reported that top Party leaders have agreed to investigate Zhou for corruption. "There is a 50 percent chance that Zhou is in trouble, and that’s a pretty big chance," says a person familiar with the matter.

It’s impossible to predict the future; in the opaque world of Chinese politics, even the present is hazy. Thus, it’s instructive to look into the past, at the case of Kang Sheng, Mao Zedong’s urbane and cruel spymaster, and probably the last security chief to accrue as much power as Zhou. While Chinese politics during Mao’s era were far more vicious, and Kang correspondingly far more feared than Zhou, the system of rules Kang played by during the anarchic decade-long Cultural Revolution still influence Chinese political infighting today. And Kang won. Communism, a social movement known for its tendency to consume its children, has few notable marquee survivors. China’s survivor wasn’t Mao Zedong — when he died in November 1976, after a decade presiding over the Cultural Revolution, he could probably already feel the country slipping away from his grasp. Rather it was Kang, who died in 1975 of cancer, with his hands still gripping the levers of state security.

Born in 1898, Kang studied abroad in Russia in the 1920s and brought back a sophisticated understanding of Soviet espionage. He ingratiated himself with Mao when the future chairman was a rebel leader in Yan’an in the late 1930s, facilitating Mao’s marriage to his fourth and final wife Jiang Qing. (The information regarding Kang comes from The Claws of the Dragon, a 1992 biography written by Roger T. Uren, a former diplomat who wrote under the penname John Byron, and the journalist Robert Peck, who in the 1980s received a set of secret Party documents pertaining to Kang.) 

Kang’s standing in the party rose and fell over the next three decades, until the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, when he was on the ascendant. "Kang never lost sight of one essential lesson from his Soviet experience: that by inventing a world full of spies and enemy agents, it was possible to acquire enormous influence," the authors wrote. An excellent judge of Mao’s moods, Kang solidified power by positioning his enemies in the path of Mao’s rage or paranoia, and by knowing when to cut ties with someone who had fallen out of favor. One of Kang’s key allies was Lin Biao, a decorated Chinese general appointed as Mao’s successor. As soon as he sensed that Mao had grown wary of Lin, Kang immediately distanced himself from the erstwhile crown prince.

Has Zhou learned these lessons and successfully distanced himself from Bo? Or is he implicated and caught up by Bo’s downfall? Did Zhou cast his lot in with Bo, and, as some of the more outlandish rumors say, plan a coup? That information may never surface. In 1972, Lin allegedly tried to assassinate Mao; after the plot failed, he fled to the Soviet Union, but his plane crashed on the way, leaving no survivors. That’s the official version, anyway — whether the actual events differed in reality remains unknown, even to this day.

There is no record of Kang meeting Zhou, but Kang was instrumental in the downfall of Bo’s father Bo Yibo, then a top party official. In 1966, he presented Mao with a newspaper that featured an "anti-communist" declaration Bo had signed decades earlier, according to the journalists Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang in their book about the Bo Xilai affair, A Death in the Lucky Hotel. Kang was a master at building cases against his opponents, and of surgically purging their allies — a situation that may be befalling Zhou.

More than half a dozen of Zhou’s allies, including a deputy party chief of Sichuan, the province Zhou formerly ran, are known to be under investigation. Over the last week, Beijing has announced it is investigating four senior officials at China National Petroleum, the oil behemoth Zhou ran in the 1990s, for graft. One of the men, Li Hualin, formerly served as Zhou’s secretary. "The aim of this operation is to separate Zhou Yongkang from the current political layout," political commentator Li Weidong told The Washington Post.

But the excesses of Kang, who was partially responsible for the torture and murder of several high-ranking officials in the 1960s and 1970s, like Chinese President Liu Shaoqi, may help Zhou. There is now an unofficial ban on the trial or arrest of current or former Standing Committee members. If he is indeed being investigated, Zhou might be placed under house arrest, like former Premier Zhao Ziyang, or he might quietly fade away.

As for Kang, his reputation suffered greatly after his death. Hu Yaobang, who served as a reformist Chinese premier in the mid-1980s, censured Kang in a 1978 speech, beginning the process of removing him from the canon of respected former leaders. "Hu’s long harangue against Kang in itself revealed that Kang’s techniques had penetrated to the very marrow of Chinese politics," Kang’s biographers write; Hu was exaggerating some of the details and "fantasizing about his crimes." By late 1980, Kang had been posthumously expelled from the Communist Party.

And yet, Kang’s methods live on. In July, The Study Times, an influential Communist Party newspaper, published an article exhorting readers to study those speeches Hu made in "unmasking" Kang Sheng — which could be interpreted as an attack on Zhou, given the similarities between the two men.

But Kang got the last laugh. "The final proof of Kang’s cunning is that he outlived virtually all of his victims," the authors of his biography wrote. After his death, The People’s Daily, the newspaper that functions as a mouthpiece of the Communist Party, published a photo of Kang on its front page with a long banner headline, ending with the phrase "Comrade Kang Sheng is immortal!" Whatever happens to Zhou, he is unlikely to receive the same treatment.  

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

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