Tea Leaf Nation

The ‘Anti-Corruption’ Campaign That Wasn’t

Former security czar Zhou Yongkang was deposed because he lost a power struggle, not because he was corrupt.

Getty Images
Getty Images


What follows is an abridged translation of a personal blog entry originally published in Chinese. –The editors

On July 29, the Chinese central government officially announced that former minister of state security and former member of the elite Politburo Standing Committee Zhou Yongkang was suspected of "serious violations of [Communist Party] discipline," and that the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection would commence a review. Zhou Yongkang is thus far the highest-ranking target claimed by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s "anti-corruption movement," which began in January 2013 and continues in earnest. But the so-called corruption crackdown is, at its core, a power struggle under another name. China’s palace politics are notoriously opaque; the red walls of Zhongnanhai, the government compound in central Beijing, are thick. But Robert Daly, a scholar at the Washington, DC-based Kissinger Institute on China and the U.S., told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that Zhou is closely associated with fallen Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, and that "Rumors that Zhou would be investigated have been circulating since the Bo scandal broke in early 2012." 

Everyone knows that if Chinese central authorities actually wanted to fight corruption, there would be no shortage of free, unrestricted media and civil society organizations criticizing and tracking official behavior. Instead, over the past few years, authorities have actively prohibited independent and free media from performing their oversight function, while also retaliating against people like Xu Zhiyong, a member of the so-called New Citizens Movement who has demanded an end to corruption and the disclosure of officials’ private assets. These actions prove out the hypocrisy underlying the party’s anti-corruption efforts.

Although party authorities have gone after some corruption officials, they have been selective. The right to decide whom to prosecute lies in the hands of those with power in the party, and the outcomes aren’t dictated by which officials are actually most corrupt. Instead, the anti-corruption move has become a tool to strike at one’s political opponents in internecine power struggles. Xi has used this tool to consolidate authority at the center.

If party authorities really wanted to stop corruption, they would not maintain such an adversarial posture towards well-known foreign media operating in the country; instead, they would welcome both domestic and foreign media as watchdogs. The New York Times and Bloomberg news have been providing high-quality news by respected reporters inside China. But because they investigated the massive family wealth of both Xi and then-Premier Wen Jiabao, the websites of both services have been blocked by China’s so-called Great Firewall of Censorship. That block, which was erected in July 2012 against Bloomberg and October 2012 against the Times as punishment for the reports on Xi and Wen, continues to this day.

I was once an editor at a major Chinese online portal. During my tenure there, I received a number of internal, confidential communiqués from propaganda authorities, organs that many group together and ironically label the "Ministry of Truth." I believe these directives, taken together, provide the written history of this era of preposterously harsh restrictions on speech.

One order, dated June 29, 2012, coming on the heels of Bloomberg’s report on Xi, calls the report "completely vile" and prohibits "every website, without exception," from posting it. It adds that any social media accounts that re-tweet "the article or any related harmful information will be closed without exception."  

In October 2012, after the New York Times report on Wen hit the wires, the Ministry of Truth issued another directive asking "all micro-blogs, blogs, and discussion forums" to delete both the article, which it called "an attack on central leaders," as well as "all related information and comments." On November 25, after the Times‘ English and Chinese-language sites had already been blocked, the Ministry issued another directive: "Please use the key terms ‘Ping An,’ ‘Ping An Insurance,’  ‘Tai Hong’ [all companies mentioned in the Times report], ‘Wen family members,’ etcetera to perform a domestic search." Those who found "[related] forwards or discussions" were to "report it immediately, then delete the content."

It’s clear that the Ministry of Truth rigorously protects central party officials and their families from disadvantageous news. They accomplish this in part by labeling such news "attacks" or "defamation" and requesting "comprehensive" blocking and deletion of the same. That’s why, after Jiang Jiemin, then the corrupt chairman of China National Petroleum Corporation, was made director of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, the Ministry issued a March 10 order requiring "comprehensive deletion" of "harmful posts" and the blocking of keywords related to "revelations of massive corruption [by Jiang] and capital flows to Zhou Yongkang." By September 2013, Jiang had been removed from his post and placed under investigation for abuse of power and corruption.

The Ministry of Truth’s protection once extended beyond Zhou’s circle, to Zhou himself. An October 2013 communiqué asked recipients to "please clean up" any content relating to "a special task force" set up by Xi to investigate Zhou. (Just days earlier, the Twitter account of state broadcaster CCTV had tweeted that a "special unit" had been established to investigate Zhou, even mentioning him by name; CCTV later deleted the post and claimed its account had been hacked.) In December 2013, another order called for a "comprehensive clean up" of information related to Zhou from microblogs, popular mobile chat platform WeChat, online discussion forums including the popular Baidu Tieba, and other interactive platforms. It also asked recipients to keep an eye on "mobile clients" of those platforms, who were to be prevented from spreading related information. Then in early March, just days after a spokesperson for a political advisory body called the CPPCC subtly suggested Zhou was in trouble, a directive wrote, "Higher authorities have notified that all reports, articles, topics, plans, etcetera" about Zhou’s son, Zhou Bin and Zhou Bin’s "family network" must be "pulled backstage immediately." Violators would be "severely punished" by the National Internet Information Office.

If central party authorities really wanted to fight corruption, the propaganda authorities that it controls would not be protecting officials in a way that creates an institutional environment conducive to corruption and rent-seeking. The crackdown on Zhou is a product of the will to power. When the Ministry of Truth lifted its protection on July 29, it was clear that Zhou had lost the power struggle. 

As of today, China’s party authorities continue to prohibit the existence of free and unrestricted media. Criticisms of central officials continue to elicit retaliation. And Xu Zhiyong and other prisoners of conscience continue to sit in jail cells. As long as this is all true, any so-called anti-corruption efforts look like nothing more than a tool to aggregate power and an excuse to strike down political enemies.

Translated by David Wertime. 

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