An expert's point of view on a current event.

China’s First Great Tiger Hunt

What Chairman Mao's takedown of the "King of the Northeast" tells us about Xi Jinping's purges.

Zhou Yongkang Falls In China Corruption Purge
BEIJING, CHINA - OCTOBER 22: Zhou Yongkang, one of the members of new nine-seat Politburo Standing Committee, greets the media at the Great Hall of the People on October 22, 2007 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

Zhou Yongkang’s Dec. 5 arrest and expulsion from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) surprised no one: His spectacular fall from power has followed the unwritten rules of CCP power struggles. Although often couched in moralistic terms of good versus evil, righteousness versus corruption, and law versus anarchy, these struggles are rarely motivated by anything other than lingering insecurities, competing ambitions, and mutual mistrust of the small group of men at the apex of China’s political hierarchy.

Zhou, a member of China’s top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, from 2007 to 2012, with a portfolio that included domestic security and intelligence, was one of China’s most powerful men. But not its most powerful: After taking office in November 2012, party Secretary Xi Jinping vowed to fight corruption in China by moving against both “tigers” and “flies” (high- and low-level officials). Until recently, the biggest “tiger” caught was the charismatic Bo Xilai, a former contender for top leadership who is now serving a life sentence in prison. Zhou had been a backer of Bo and was fatally weakened by his disgrace.

Chinese history is replete with power struggles. The closest parallel to Zhou’s is the dramatic early 1950s fall of CCP leader Gao Gang, the first prominent official to be purged after Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Gao spent the Chinese Civil War in northeast China, where he concurrently served as the regional head of the party, the government, and the military: He was known as the “King of the Northeast.” In 1952, Mao recalled Gao to Beijing. According to an internal Chinese report (from a cache of recently released Chinese and Russian documents on the Gao Gang affair), Gao regarded this with suspicion, referring to the move as “luring the tiger out of the mountain.”

For Gao, being in Beijing, close to the levers of national power, was both a threat and an opportunity. He had to work alongside Mao’s second in command, Liu Shaoqi, who Gao suspected may have sought his ouster. But Gao would have more of an opportunity to interact with Mao and whisper into his ear. In a political system in which so much depended on the dictator’s personal whim, perhaps Gao thought that he could influence Mao to undercut Liu and even Premier Zhou Enlai. (Gao sensed that Mao was dissatisfied with both for being insufficiently radical in domestic policies.) Taking them out would have put Gao on track to succeed Mao; Liu and Zhou, for their part, had no doubts that Gao’s real aim all along had been to “seize power in the party and the government.”

Yes, Zhou Yongkang could not have competed with Xi to take the top post in 2012 — the Politburo Standing Committee has a surprisingly strict retirement age, and the then 70-year-old Zhou would have had to retire. But as a member of the senior guard, Zhou expected to exercise influence from behind the scenes through his man on the inside, possibly Bo. Bo’s sudden downfall immediately put Zhou in danger. Whether the danger was grave enough that Zhou would attempt to seize power is unknown. But rumors were rife in the spring of 2012 that Zhou had attempted, and failed, to stage a coup in Beijing. If he had, it was probably an act of desperation.

By contrast, Gao acted methodically and strategically. He sought out backers among senior leaders, including prominent generals Lin Biao and Luo Ronghuan. He tried to win prominent official (and later paramount leader) Deng Xiaoping over to the plot.

Deng, however, reported Gao’s scheming to Mao. Perhaps it was in the spirit of unquestioning loyalty — or perhaps it was because Deng thought that hiding his contacts with Gao could lead to serious political and personal repercussions if Gao’s bid failed. Whatever grudges Mao held against Liu and Zhou Enlai, he decided that Gao’s intrigue went too far in upsetting the delicate political balance at the top. In December 1953, Mao moved against Gao, dismissing him from the leadership. Mao also expelled Gao from the party posthumously, because, faced with certain defeat, Gao took his own life by swallowing poison.

The difficulty was in explaining this purge to the party and the country. How could a leader of this magnitude — a “tiger” — turn out to be a renegade who betrayed the communist cause? Villainizing Gao required character assassination. In subsequent party meetings, Gao was accused of decadence, corruption, moral degradation, and inappropriate sexual relationships with suspicious women. “Gao Gang was a sordid individual,” Mao explained to the Soviet ambassador in 1954. He went on to talk about Gao’s sexual liaisons (though the historical record suggests that Mao was far more promiscuous).

Mao also accused Gao of leaking secrets to the Soviet Union. He knew that Gao had complained to Joseph Stalin in 1949 about supposedly “pro-American” sentiments of key power brokers in Mao’s circle. Mao also knew that Gao had said to Stalin (probably jokingly — but who knows?) that Manchuria should detach from China and make itself a Soviet republic. Knowing that Stalin’s security chief and henchman Lavrentiy Beria had been ousted and executed as an “imperialist spy” following the 1953 death of Stalin, Mao proposed that Gao should be seen as “China’s Beria.”

Zhou Yongkang would find all of this disturbingly familiar. Charges against him — corruption, leaking state secrets, and illicit sexual liaisons — are very similar to the party’s verdict some 60 years before. As the brutal security czar responsible for crushing domestic dissent, Zhou has an even better claim to the title of “China’s Beria.”

There is no reason to doubt the allegations of corruption and decadence in the senior party ranks, whether with Gao or Zhou. Both phenomena are deeply entrenched in the party — all the more so now. China of the early 1950s was in ruins after decades of war and revolutions; its leaders wore baggy suits and smoked cheap cigarettes. Zhou’s China is an infinitely bigger pie.

Still, the real reason for Gao’s and Zhou’s fall was not their corruption, but their quest for personal power. Mao was furious with Gao for attempting to create what he called an “independent kingdom” inside the Communist Party’s leadership — by which he meant monopolizing key positions and drawing on support from loyal constituencies in the northeast.

After Gao’s disgrace, Mao abolished regional party bureaus in a bid to centralize power in Beijing, but this did not prevent the proliferation of factions and cliques. Indeed, factionalism remains one of the most salient features of the Chinese political landscape.

Zhou’s main fault lies in his ties to the powerful Shanghai faction, notionally led by now retired former President Jiang Zemin. By undercutting Zhou, Xi hopes to fight off an important challenge from this “independent kingdom” that threatens his own grasp on power.

In the early 1950s, infighting among the elite helped Mao consolidate his power. By supporting Liu and Zhou Enlai against Gao’s challenge, he asserted his political authority and stayed above what he called an “epidemic of factionalism” inside the party.

Xi, too, has moved quickly to assert his authority. Bo’s trial in September 2013 served this purpose. So did the recent purges in the People’s Liberation Army, including the high-profile case of Gen. Xu Caihou. These cases — and especially Zhou’s — purportedly show that Xi is above factionalism and that he will not brook mixed loyalties. Xi’s method comes directly from Mao’s arsenal: divide and rule. But will its legacy be similar?

The Gao Gang affair reverberated for years. Mao became ever more paranoid, suspecting disloyalty at every turn. In 1959, he purged Defense Minister Peng Dehuai for criticizing policies of the disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign — he would later speak of Peng and Gao in the same breath as “enemies of the party.” In 1962, Mao purged Xi Zhongxun, the father of current party Secretary Xi, for his (mostly imagined) connection to Gao. And then in 1965, Gao’s nemesis Liu came under fire from Mao for attempting to create an “independent kingdom” in the central leadership. He was purged, publicly humiliated, and beaten. In 1969, he died in prison from medical neglect.

But the real lesson of the Gao affair is not corruption in the ranks, but the instability of Chinese politics, where the country’s future can hinge on the outcome of intrigue of which those outside the palace walls know very little — until the hides of the freshly skinned “tigers” are set out for display.

Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images

Sergey Radchenko is a professor of international politics and director of research at the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University. He is the author, most recently, of Unwanted Visionaries: The Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War. Twitter: @DrRadchenko