Zhou Anti-Graft Probe Tests Limits of Xi’s Power

IT COMES AS little surprise to this Bystander – or to most others – that former security chief Zhou Yongkang is under investigation. The announcement that Zhou is suspected of serious Party disciplinary violations – for which read, serious corruption – only formally confirms rumours that have been circulating for months – rumours that were informally confirmed by Zhou’s disappearance from public view since last October and investigations of his family and dozens of associates in the oil industry and security circles.

As tigers go, Zhou is the biggest to be brought down by an anti-corruption campaign since the time of the Gang of Four; he headed the Ministry of Public Security until his retirement in 2012, oversaw the state oil sector, and was a member of the Politburo standing committee.

By disgracing such a senior powerbroker, albeit one past the zenith of his political power, President Xi Jinping is sending a clear signal to both his political adversaries and to the public: his anti-corruption campaign will be wide-ranging and no mere exercise in frightening off political rivals, though it is certainly that, too. Zhou was a supporter of Bo Xilai, the former mayor of Chongqing who was given a life sentence last year for corruption and abuse of power after challenging Xi for the leadership. He also remained a powerful figure in the state oil industry, and thus an obstacle to Xi’s economic reforms.

Zhou’s investigation will also be seen as Xi signaling that he believes he has consolidated his power sufficiently that no official or politician is beyond the reach of his anti-corruption campaign. That is a message that will play well with most Chinese, who are at the sharp end of petty official corruption day-in, day-out. Yet popularity is one thing and political power another. Whether a Party investigation of Zhou turns into court proceedings will indicate how absolute Xi’s political control over the Party has become.

Party discipline means expulsion and house arrest without public prosecution. Zhou’s case indicates that Xi isn’t yet in a position to antagonize all the high-level power brokers and elders in the Party, notably former President Jiang Zemin, by initiating court proceedings that could lead to lengthy jail terms or the death penalty – and the lid being publicly pulled back on the multimillion dollar business enterprises of many of the ruling elite and their families. For now, suffice it to say that the long-standing understanding that serving or former Politburo standing committee members will not be incriminated in anti-graft probes clearly no longer holds.

That is a more startling message for the political elite than the one to lower level officials have had to swallow, that the days of flaunting their perks and privileges and expecting expensive gifts as a right of office are over. So far, according to statement’s by various judicial officials, 51,306 officials were investigated for corruption and related economic crimes in 2013, a twelfth more than in the previous year. That number included 20 ministerial- and vice ministerial-level officials, about half of whom can be considered associates of Zhou.

Xi advocates that corruption threatens the Party’s long-term viability. One common facet of industrializing countries that successfully move up the economic development ladder is that they reform and strengthen their institutions. In China, the Party remains the paramount institution, so reforming that is Xi’s priority. For now though he is emphasizing clean governance over the rule of law, by using top-down political power to set the Party on what he believes is the correct course. The fine line he has to walk is between cleaning up the Party and tearing it down in the process of tearing down his political opponents.

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