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For Chinese Power Game, a Changing Equation

How the fall of Zhou Yongkang may upend the "unwritten rules" of elite leadership.

Getty Images
Getty Images

On July 29, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) announced it was investigating ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang "on suspicion of grave violations of discipline." Zhou, who retired from the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) in 2012, is the first member of that body, the Party’s elite inner circle, to face such an inquest for corruption and abuses of power. Contributors discuss Zhou’s long-anticipated downfall and the possible outcomes of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign. —The ChinaFile Editors

Sebastian Veg, Research Professor at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Science in Paris:

When the announcement was made on July 29 that Zhou had been officially placed under investigation, it came so late that it was almost anticlimactic. Rumors had flown as early as spring 2012 that he had been involved in a coup attempt with Bo Xilai, the disgraced former Chongqing Party boss and Politburo member, and that he had cast the lone pro-Bo vote in the standing committee meeting that decided Bo’s removal in March 2012. In the spring of 2013, it was rumored that a special Politburo meeting held in December 2012 shortly after the 18th Congress had approved a special investigation group under the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection to target high-level leaders. The South China Morning Post, under the editorship of Party-reformer Wang Xiangwei, has been aggressively marketing "leaks" about the alleged investigation into Zhou since August 2013. The long delay, and the repeated "leaks," suggest two points: Strong resistance within the Party to formalizing the investigation, and aggressive new marketing techniques ("leaks") inside the Party to make the decision irreversible.

A People’s Daily op-ed presents the investigation as a sign of opening: "Cleaning out corruption is a necessary act to deepen reforms." Liberal commentators want to be sanguine: Du Daozheng and Wu Si of the monthly journal Yanhuang Chunqiu (China Through the Ages) both write that removing the immunity of former PBSC members is a step towards rule of law. However, they provide no decisive argument proving that Xi is not simply settling a factional score. Wu Si concedes that "in order to confirm that this is not a return to Maoist ‘hidden rules‘ but the independence of justice… we not only need more cases, we also need institutional guarantees." Wu then scales back his argument one notch, saying that at the very least, tackling the immunity of former PBSC members puts an end to the control of former leaders over present leaders, and in this sense represents a step towards bringing institutional practice in line with constitutional rules.

There is, however, another possibility. Xi has consolidated power by making symbolic gestures to various political groups and interests, inside and outside the Party, balancing them one against the other. The decision to publicly investigate Zhou, judging by the time it took to announce it and the means employed, must have encountered huge resistance. Even as it reached the final stages, new rumors were floated about the possible targeting of Jia Qinglin, Zeng Qinghong, and even Jiang Zemin. One day after the announcement, Reuters wrote that the CCDI is sending inspectors to Shanghai to investigate associates of Jiang Zemin. A People’s Daily op-ed entitled "Netting ‘Big Tiger’ Zhou Yongkang is Not the Final Stop to Fighting Corruption" was scrapped from the Internet within 24 hours. There seems to be great anxiety that the anti-corruption campaign may become uncontrollable and degenerate into a full-fledged factional battle.

By shaking up the unwritten rules that have prevailed since Deng Xiaoping consolidated power, Xi is taking a political risk. In exchange for the immunity that PBSC members were granted, they were expected to retire at the end of their term, and to remain loyal to collective decisions. If immunity is denied, both of these tenets may begin to be questioned. Why should powerful leaders retire if they can then be targeted? Why should they accept decision by consensus if they can later be made to pay the consequences (as is alleged in Zhou’s case with the vote on Bo)? They may be better off spending their terms gathering compromising material on other colleagues. Xi no doubt understands the risk, and believes it must be taken because the Party’s legitimacy is in danger. However, by disturbing the carefully crafted institutional balance, he runs the risk of overplaying his hand.

Roderick MacFarquhar, the Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science and former Director of the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University:

I agree with the many who believe Xi has adopted a high-risk strategy. All but Xi and Premier Li Keqiang will retire from the PBSC in three years time; there will also be retirees from the Politburo. Are those retirees not going to wonder about their fates when they are no longer in office in light of what has been happening in Xi’s first term? Since corruption is a major reason for indictment, how many of them can feel safe?

Mao Zedong had the legitimacy to divide and rule, to pick off his opponents one by one and group by group in 1966-67, with nobody daring to ally with colleagues because Mao was against cliques. It is difficult to believe that Xi, however self-confident, has yet established his authority over his peers to prevent any of them from deciding to unite against him.

Taisu Zhang, Associate Professor at the Duke University School of Law and Ph.D. candidate in History at Yale University:

I agree that Xi likely expended tremendous amounts of political capital to bring Zhou down, and that this may very well deepen political divisions and mistrust within the Party leadership. The overall political math for Xi, however, is somewhat more complicated and profoundly ambiguous: He has very likely galvanized his supporters within the Party and, perhaps more importantly, seems to be generating a massive wave of personal popularity among the general population. For example, if the commentary on China’s Twitter-like Weibo regarding Zhou’s investigation is any indication, the anti-corruption campaign appears to be a smashing success in the court of popular opinion, a few notable cynics notwithstanding. Xi himself, according to a Pew Research Center survey, enjoys almost absurdly high approval ratings (92 percent, compared to 28 percent for Obama, and 44 percent for Putin).

Whether, and to what extent, this translates into additional political capital for Xi is unclear from the outside, but if he is indeed taking a page or two from Mao’s political playbook, he will probably try much harder to utilize this than his stoic and technocratic predecessor. If he is successful, there is a chance that the political "rules" we have become accustomed to over the past three decades will be significantly revised, and there could once again be a truly populist element in Chinese high politics. This may seem farfetched, but then again, a political system so heavily reliant on "unwritten rules" was probably never that stable to begin with. Even if Xi is reluctant to play the personal popularity card, it is clear that he has already ventured into uncharted political waters.

Richard McGregor, Washington Bureau Chief for the Financial Times and the newspaper’s former Beijing Bureau Chief:

You don’t need to spend long in Beijing to realize at least one thing about Xi’s anti-corruption purge and the felling of Zhou, the former state security czar — this is an immensely popular campaign. Every person I talked to over two weeks this summer said they were happy to see senior party officials bought to account. Such anecdotal evidence is backed up by the gleeful reaction online.

Sinocism’s Bill Bishop reported that traffic on Caixin magazine’s website surged ten-fold after the news broke. Caixin, of course, has been covering the story better than anyone else. It helps that Caixin‘s editor and pioneering journalist Hu Shuli has long had good relations with the head of the CCDI, Wang Qishan, from his time in the finance sector.

As to whether Xi’s campaign to capture crooked "tigers and flies" in the CCP is more of an old-fashioned purge than a genuine effort to weed out corruption, it is obviously a bit of both. For a leader who has vowed far-reaching economic change, it is also popular politics which may help in the implementation of difficult reforms.

From the outside, the toppling of senior party officials could seem to be damaging the CCP. From Xi’s point of view, I think the opposite is the case. He believes he can install his own people in the positions vacated by the outgoing officials and strengthen the party overall in the process. As Steven Tsang of the University of Nottingham noted, these two things "are mutually reinforcing from Xi’s point of view."

Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, was very much first-among-equals on the Politburo Standing committee; Xi, by contrast, has exhibited an instinct for grabbing power from the outset of his first term. As a way for intimidating any potential challengers, there are few better tools than an anti-corruption campaign, especially one run by an official of Wang’s standing. (Wang, incidentally, does not have children, which means his own family is unlikely to make him vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.)

The big question remains: Where does it all end? It isn’t just officials, worrying that they themselves might be targeted, who are asking this question. One reason why the CCP insists on doing its corruption inquiries in-house is that any independent investigator could rummage through its affairs at will, without worrying about broader political stability — or, in other words, the impact on the party’s monopoly power. That is why all corruption inquiries are first of all politically sanctioned, and then quarantined. This latest investigation has already gone much further than most would have predicted at the outset, but with Zhou’s formal detention, it is also a good bet that it has peaked.

Finally, it’s worth noting that this campaign is moving offshore in a big way. Remember, the party’s anti-graft body has no legal status. It enforces party discipline which extends beyond mere laws. But with this current enquiry, what is effectively an extralegal body is exerting extraterritorial powers. Caixin has already reported how PetroChina’s Canadian investments have been caught up in the Zhou investigation. The CCDI is also dispatching its investigators to other nations in search of the assets of "naked officials," the term given to officials who have children and spouses living abroad on their families’ ill-gotten gains. Some countries are likely to quietly welcome the CCDI’s help. Canada’s court system struggled for years with China’s effort to extradite from Canada Lai Changxing, the fugitive from the billion-dollar Xiamen smuggling scandal who fled China in 1999. The case damaged Sino-Canadian relations for a decade. Countries such as Australia and New Zealand, favorite destinations for "naked officials," do not want to have bilateral relations held hostage to domestic Chinese politics surrounding corruption. Hence, they have an incentive to quietly cooperate with the CCDI. Other countries may do so as well.   

Taisu Zhang is an Associate Professor at Yale Law School.

Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney and the author of numerous books on East Asia, including, most recently, Xi Jinping: The Backlash.

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