The credibility of Xi Jinping’s “tigers and flies” anti-corruption campaign has required the destruction of a bigger player than any previous targets. Zhou Yongkang, who’s now beginning a life sentence for bribery and abuse of power, certainly fits the bill.
Zhou’s life sentence is for bribery, with lesser terms of seven years for abuse of power and four for leaking state secrets. This last charge turned out to be far less serious than previously suspected, as no documents were passed to a foreign power – only to a veteran of China’s 1980s qigong boom, the “Xinjiang sage” Cao Yongzheng.
A mystic who claimed the ability to cure incurable diseases and predict people’s futures, Cao’s real gift turns out to have been using his confidante status with Zhou to obtain large sums of money for his energy company as income from a non-existent investment in a state-owned oilfield in Shaanxi, rather than the ability to tell someone’s past and future from looking at their face.
He was detained in 2014 as part of the long investigation into Zhou’s connections in oil and mining, having reportedly failed to evade the authorities by fleeing to Taiwan. (Insert your own “he didn’t see that coming” joke here.)
Zhou presided over a “stability maintenance” apparatus with a larger annual budget than China’s military which devoted considerable resources to the suppression of Falun Gong, detaining and torturing tens of thousands of qigong practitioners to force them to renounce their belief in people such as Cao. That said, raging hypocrisy is not in itself a criminal offence.
For five years, Zhou was a member of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, one of the nine men who ran China. Even though he’d left office by the time he came under investigation, bringing down someone of his rank and connections is impressive, as a glance at Caixin magazine’s mapping of his web of interests shows.
Given Zhou entered the courtroom in terrible shape, thin and haggard with hair turned completely white, it’s only natural we should wonder how voluntary his guilty plea really was. But his case will inevitably have involved a process of negotiation. Unlike his protégé, Politburo member and leadership contender Bo Xilai, Zhou played his part obediently in court.
Fallen tiger Zhou Yongkang. EPA/Anindito Mukherjee
The only public statement he got to make was a brief and shakily delivered one acknowledging his guilt. Accepting that no doubt helped him escape a death sentence, even a suspended one.
There were plenty of inflammatory earlier statements that may have been calculated to pressure him into this. The People’s Daily’s labelled Zhou a traitor, the Supreme People’s Court claimed that he and Bo Xilai had formed an illegitimate faction within the party, and there was a loudly trumpeted investigation into rumours that he was implicated in his first wife’s death.
On the other hand, the uneven tone of official comments on Zhou’s wrongdoing may just reflect a genuine struggle to decide how harshly to condemn him.
Threading the needle
It’s doubtful that Xi will take down anyone else of Zhou’s status, although he will need to find some way to push the three-year-old campaign forward. Popular though the anti-corruption drive is with many ordinary citizens, it has met significant resistance among officials at all levels.
The risk of jeopardising the party’s other goals by prioritising corruption is not to be taken lightly. Unfilled government posts are a significant problem in the provinces hardest hit to date, not only in Zhou’s bailiwicks of Sichuan and Shaanxi but also in Guangdong.
When the CCP’s foot soldiers feel unfairly treated by those higher up – and accusing officials of corruption in a system where they cannot stay clean and do their jobs is arguably unfair – they have ways of making their displeasure known, including the simple but effective refusal to take the decisions which keep the business of government running.
This is the big dilemma Xi faces. Official corruption is certainly a huge threat to CCP rule, but if he cracks down on it too hard, his officials will start to worry that any one of them could be arbitrarily hung out to dry for something they can hardly avoid doing – and that will greatly undermine their loyalty.
He will be well aware of the risks of this all getting out of hand. When Mao set his sights on two out of six serving politburo members in 1966, he had to start something close to a civil war to get the job done – and even then, one of his victims, Deng Xiaoping, survived to succeed him as China’s paramount leader.
Xi has also used his power to block the development of any of the institutions proven to help a society resist and expose corruption: a free press, a vibrant civil society, an independent judiciary. And even if he decided to unleash them tomorrow, they would dismantle his regime as surely as doing nothing about corruption eventually will.
But if Xi can find an answer to endemic corruption under existing conditions in the seven years he has left to rule, then he really will stand out from his predecessors as a different type of leader.