Tea Leaf Nation
Happy Friday, Zhou Yongkang
Yesterday was Thursday; tomorrow is Saturday. That means it's time for the Communist Party to bury its bad news.
Eight minutes after midnight on Friday, the axe fell on Zhou Yongkang: a terse news release from state-run Xinhua news agency said that China’s former security czar Zhou had been expelled from the Chinese Communist Party, his case handed over to China’s top prosecutor’s office. One minute later, an English version appeared, likewise detailing that once-formidable Zhou had allegedly accepted huge bribes, abused his power, and leaked state and party secrets. Xinhua said the decision to expel Zhou had been finalized at a Friday meeting of the Political Bureau of the party’s Central Committee. The decision probably could have been announced sooner, during business hours, but it wasn’t.
For any journalist who has covered Chinese politics, the timing was déjà vu, all over again. Chinese authorities frequently release news that they believe has destabilizing potential late in the day on Fridays. Although Zhou was by no means a beloved figure — he had a reputation as a hard-liner, and bears much responsibility for helping build China’s massive apparatus of state surveillance, couched in the euphemism of “stability maintenance” — his fall probably isn’t something China wants to headline on a Monday. It betrays severe corruption at the highest levels of the party, including the Politburo Standing Committee, where Zhou served, and hints at factional rivalries behind the scenes. In other words, while Zhou’s ouster might be a positive move for the long-term health of the party, it also has the potential to anger the public by lifting the curtain on the perks of party life and the extent of government power.
In sitting on the Zhou news until late Friday, the party is playing true to form. Xinhua announced that the popular princeling and former party secretary of the mega-city of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, had been kicked out of the party just after 6:00 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 28, 2012. The political dissident Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison on a Friday morning in 2009, which also happened to be Christmas Day.
This year brims with further evidence. On Friday, Nov. 21, China denied the appeal of the (seemingly unjust) life sentence for the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti and held a closed-door, one-day trial of Gao Yu, a former Xinhua reporter turned party critic and human rights activist. The Washington Post called it “a double-barreled attack on freedom of expression.” On Friday, July 14, well-known state television news anchor Rui Chenggang, famous for his nationalist views, was escorted away by police as part of a corruption probe. His Friday night show, “Economic News,” eerily went ahead without him, airing with Rui’s chair empty and his microphone still in place.
To be sure, not everybody is cashiered on a Friday. When the former party secretary of the poor and mountainous southern Guangxi region, Cheng Kejie, got booted from the party in April 2000 for taking nearly $5 million in bribes, the decision was handed down on a Thursday. Former General Xu Caihou was the most senior Chinese military officer to be felled by corruption charges in decades. He was expelled from the party on June 30, a Monday. But those cases are still relatively small compared to the removals of Bo and Zhou. Bo was a charismatic leader and the son of Bo Yibo, one of the eight elders of the party who once held substantial power. Zhou came from more humble origins and rose in the party ranks via the oil industry. His flinty toughness helped him elbow his way to the top, where he oversaw China’s police and courts. His takedown is historic; it marks the first time someone has faced criminal investigation for corruption after serving on the Politburo Standing Committee, a group of seven (previously nine during Zhou’s time) that essentially runs China. As both men fell, Chinese President Xi Jinping extended his influence and consolidated power with help from the sweeping anti-corruption campaign he launched shortly after ascending to the party’s top spot in Nov. 2012.
Chinese authorities are clearly aware of the old wisdom among spin doctors that issuing announcements right before a weekend tends to dull their impact. Dropping the news on China’s foreign correspondents, whose muckraking is often seen as external meddling, just as they attempt to relax into their weekend is an added bonus. William Wan, the Washington Post’s Beijing bureau chief wasn’t pleased. He wrote in a Tweet: “Leave it up to party officials to wait til Friday midnight to drop Zhou Yongkang news.” George Chen, financial editor for the English-language South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, also grumbled on Twitter: “Question: Why did China (Xi Jinping) decide to announce official arrest of ex-security chief Zhou Yongkang at … Midnight? Surprise anyone?”
This strategy is not a Chinese invention. The “Friday news dump” is a familiar concept in the United States as well; there’s even a Twitter feed dedicated to surfacing it. But Beijing still exercises direct control over many of the nation’s major print, web, and television news outlets, giving it a much tighter rein on its news media than Washington has. Opacity has its benefits (in the eye of the beholder, at least): when then-Communist Chairman Mao Zedong died in 1976, he passed in the early hours of a Thursday, but the government didn’t announce it until 16 hours later. And the strongman Mao would surely have been proud at the discipline state media showed in eviscerating Beijing mayor Chen Xitong, whose corruption case percolated through the party system in the late 1990s. Chen was expelled from the party on a Friday (Aug. 29, 1997), arrested on a Friday (Feb. 27, 1998), and sentenced to 13 years in jail on a Friday (July 31, 1998). Chen died at the age of 82 on June 2, 2013 — a Sunday.