| Didi Tang & Ian Mader |
BEIJING (AP) – The criminal case against China’s ex-security chief not only plays to public demands to curb corruption but spells the downfall of one of President Xi Jinping’s biggest rivals, puts other challengers on their toes and leaves Xi more solidly in control than ever.
The fate of the once-feared Zhou Yongkang, 72, appeared to be sealed by the just-after-midnight announcements Saturday that he was expelled from China’s ruling Communist Party and arrested in a criminal investigation into allegations ranging from bribe-taking to leaking state secrets.
“Many of Xi’s enemies have been scared, and he’s been successful in intimidating his enemies,” said Willy Lam, an observer of China’s elite politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “All of them have become obedient – at least superficially – to Xi Jinping.”
Zhou, with a face that looks like it is made of stone, was a former member of the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee and was once in charge of the country’s police, security forces and judiciary, a vast apparatus that spends more on domestic security than what China spent on the People’s Liberation Army, the world’s biggest military.
Zhou’s status as security czar would have meant he had access to private phone conversations and secret information about national leaders. The state secrets allegations against him likely stem from his attempts to use leaks about colleagues to jockey for position ahead of China’s handover of power in late 2012 to a new generation of leaders at the retirement of President Hu Jintao, Lam said.
If he ends up formally charged on that count, it also may give the court a reason to keep trial proceedings closed and thus limit any politically damaging public disclosures.
Lam said Zhou and his associates also may have been part of the biggest corruption ring since the Communist Party took over power in 1949.
His vast network of protégés involved hundreds of officials and billions of dollars, Lam said. Whispers that Zhou was in trouble began to circulate months before he was set to retire in November 2012.
They grew louder when his favoured protégé, a deputy party chief in Zhou’s old stomping ground of Sichuan province, became the first major official to fall in the anti-corruption campaign that Xi has made hallmark of his tenure. That happened mere 18 days after the conclusion of the power-transfer ceremony.
One by one, Zhou’s associates – in the oil industry, in police and in Sichuan province, where he had built strong power bases – were placed under investigation, making Saturday’s announcement marking Zhou’s fall all but expected.
“When the arrow leaves the bow, there is no turning around,” Beijing-based independent scholar Zhang Lifan said.
Zhou has not been formally charged and the case has been referred by party investigators to criminal prosecutors. The investigators also cited his keeping mistresses as a reason for his expulsion from the party.
Adultery is not technically illegal in China, but it is deemed by the Communist Party to be a serious violation of party rules because mistresses are considered to inevitably open a politician up to financial demands that lead to corruption.
Any trial would be expected to have a foregone conclusion with Zhou’s conviction, because the outcomes of such high-profile trials are widely believed to be negotiated among top leaders ahead of time. The prosecution of Zhou also will serve to “shock and awe” opponents to Xi’s two-year anti-corruption drive, Zhang said.
“The campaign has moved many people’s cheese, and it has been met with great resistance, especially from the mid- and lower-level officials,” Zhang said. “It is entering into a logjam, and the announcement against Zhou can help break that stalemate.”
Differing from the view that the prosecution of Zhou is primarily about factional rivalry, Li Cheng, director of the John L Thorton China Center at Washington-based think-tank Brookings Institution, said the main objective is to tamp down pervasive corruption that has crippled public confidence in party rule.
“It’s about the life and death for the party,” Li said, calling the retired Zhou a “dead tiger” with little political relevance left. “The urgency is to change the public view of the Communist Party and to raise its prestige.”
China’s political system at the highest levels is opaque, but in recent decades has been seen to embrace a rule-by-consensus approach among topmost leaders that eschews the personality cult and turmoil of the Mao Zedong era.