“NO MATTER who it involves, we must investigate to the end. There must be no tolerance.” So Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, told anti-corruption officials in January. In the past few days his campaign against “tigers”, as he called crooked leaders, has snared executives in a state-owned oil firm and a minister who once worked with them. But Mr Xi apparently has his sights on an even bigger beast: a former chief of domestic security and one-time oilman, Zhou Yongkang. By aiming so high, Mr Xi is clearly looking to consolidate his power and impose unity at the highest levels of the Communist Party. Could he also be changing the party’s unwritten rules?
Hunting tigers is a traditional pastime of Chinese leaders trying to show their mettle. Mr Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, bagged nine officials of the rank of deputy minister or higher in 2003, the first full year of his leadership (he had felled more than 70 bent officials of such rank by the time he stepped down last November). Since taking over, Mr Xi has kept pace. He has taken down nine so far, according to state-controlled media. His biggest prey was announced on September 1st: Jiang Jiemin (above, right), the minister responsible for overseeing China’s state-owned assets. Mr Jiang is the first full member of the party’s central committee to be investigated for “discipline violations” (a party euphemism for corruption) under Mr Xi’s rule. Mr Hu also locked up an allegedly corrupt central committee member, the then minister of land, Tian Fengshan, at a comparable stage of his leadership.
But Mr Xi appears to be going a big step further. Of his nine most senior targets, four have strong links with Mr Zhou, who was in charge of the police and the country’s vast network of spies during the second half of Mr Hu’s decade in power. Mr Zhou was also a member of the Politburo’s standing committee, the then nine-member apex of party power. When Mr Xi took over it was reduced to seven members and Mr Zhou, now 70, retired. His security portfolio was given to a Politburo member who is not on the standing committee, a sign perhaps that Mr Xi wanted to keep it firmly under his thumb. In the hands of the dour and stocky Mr Zhou, the job had become immensely powerful. His people enjoyed a budget that was bigger than that of the armed forces.
In recent days rumours have been swirling in Beijing that Mr Zhou himself is under investigation for corruption. The
Financial Times, a British newspaper, quoted an unnamed source as saying that Mr Zhou had been put under house arrest. If so, Mr Xi has overturned what has long appeared to be a party rule that serving and former members of the Politburo’s standing committee cannot be targeted for corruption. No one of such a rank has been detained since Zhao Ziyang was stripped of his job as party chief and put under house arrest in 1989 for sympathising with pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square (he died, still under house arrest, in 2005). Nor has anyone of his rank been convicted of corruption since the party seized power in 1949. It remains unlikely, however, that Mr Zhou will actually be brought to trial.
It had been suspected for many months that Mr Zhou was under a cloud. He had close ties with Bo Xilai (above, left), an ordinary Politburo member who was stripped of his posts last year and tried in August for corruption and abuse of power. Mr Bo is expected to be given a heavy sentence within the next few days. Before he was purged, Mr Bo was considered likely to take over the security role when Mr Zhou retired. By targeting Mr Zhou, Mr Xi could hope to eradicate any remaining influence that Mr Bo might enjoy among the party elite. Mr Bo was a charismatic populist who could have challenged Mr Xi’s authority had he taken on Mr Zhou’s mantle. In March last year, days after Mr Bo’s arrest, rumours circulated widely through Chinese social media of an attempted coup by Mr Zhou in support of Mr Bo. Those rumours, unlike today’s, were quickly dismissed by most observers as fanciful.
Smaller cats, too
There is plenty of circumstantial evidence that Mr Zhou is in trouble. Mr Jiang, one of the four fallen tigers linked to him, was chairman of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), the country’s biggest oil producer, before he took up his ministerial post in March. He was a protégé of Mr Zhou, who spent much of his career in the oil business and rose to become CNPC’s general manager and party chief in the late 1990s. Another of the four is Wang Yongchun, a deputy general manager of CNPC who was declared on August 26th to be under investigation for “severe discipline violations” and later dismissed. He was once one of Mr Zhou’s close associates. So too was Li Chuncheng, a deputy party chief of the south-western province of Sichuan who was detained in December for corruption. Mr Zhou was party chief of Sichuan from 1999 to 2002. The fourth tiger is Guo Yongxiang, a former deputy governor of Sichuan, who was arrested in June.
A day after Wang Yongchun’s detention the party revealed that three of his colleagues at CNPC and its listed subsidiary PetroChina were also being investigated for unspecified offences. This added to an impression of a tightening noose around Mr Zhou and what some observers call his “oil faction”.
There is no sign that Mr Xi’s struggle with Mr Zhou will affect the way the country’s police and spies do their work. Mr Zhou is widely reviled among liberal intellectuals in China for having overseen an expansion of the country’s weiwen, or “stability maintenance”, apparatus, including the recruitment of more informers and the tightening of internet controls. In recent weeks censors have increased such controls and police have stepped up their harassment of dissidents. Even if Mr Zhou is at risk, his legacy still seems safe enough.
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