It’s traditional in China to clear up outstanding business before the lunar New Year begins. When the echo of the firecrackers has finally dispersed, one is then free to begin some great new enterprise.
Sure enough, the week before the new year saw activists of the New Citizens Movement sweep into jail on dubious public order charges. And now, as the Year of the Horse gets underway, the stage is being set for the downfall of the most senior CPC figure ever to face corruption charges.
Since stepping down from the then nine-man Politburo Standing Committee in 2012, Zhou Yongkang has gone by the honorific of Senior Engineer, a relic from the days when as a humble petroleum geologist he began to ascend China’s power vertical. It’s also a title that fits his culminating role as boss of China’s vast police, judicial and internal security machine. Since then, Mr Zhou served as party secretary of Sichuan, China’s most populous province, and as head of the vast state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation. Think of it as an iron triangle of power centres, linking essential geographical, economic and security interests. Master all three points on the triangle, and you become impossible to dislodge.
Now the impossible appears to be happening. On January 29, the South China Morning Post reported that Beijing has been staging briefings for senior officials on Mr Zhou’s upcoming trial. This will reportedly focus on specific instances of corruption: big enough to paint him in a properly villainous light, but not so large as to implicate the party as a whole in the systematic looting of public resources.
Mr Zhou himself has not been seen in public since October and has been reportedly under house arrest since December. One account in the overseas Chinese news site Boxun has him sequestered in the wilds of Inner Mongolia under the control of CDIC, the party’s own investigative para-police force.
The origin of his downfall is traced to his response to the fall of Bo Xilai, the former high flyer whose spectacular Neo-Maoist reinvention of the city of Chongqing ended when his family were implicated in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
Mr Zhou allegedly tried to prevent the rest of the Politburo Standing Committee moving against Mr Bo, by means as diverse as trying to assassinate Xi Jinping and attempting to stage a coup. This is the kind of wild talk that tends to be sucked in by profound information vacuums like the leadership of the Communist Party of China. It does seem likely that the pair knew each other, that Mr Zhou tried in some way to shield Mr Bo and that this put him on the target list.
It’s hard to move against a man who knows where the bodies are buried – harder still when the man concerned has only just handed over the spade. After Mr Zhou’s retirement, and ostensibly in line with Mr Xi’s aim to eradicate corruption in the party, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection began to circle the beast, moving against senior figures in Sichuan, among the security apparatus and in the oil sector. It didn’t take long for observers to note that what all these malefactors had in common was membership of Mr Zhou’s network.
A photo circulating across the Chinese internet makes the point eloquently: Mr Zhou is among a group of nervously clapping sycophants at some celebratory event. The man himself sits in the middle of the circle, squat, powerful-looking and impassive, the general Bond villain impression marred only by a strange facial resemblance to Fungus the Bogeyman. As for the sycophants: all of them are now under investigation. Perhaps the final blow came with the detention of Mr Zhou’s son, Zhou Bin, who is reportedly co-operating with the authorities.
It was apparently not until last August that the Politburo Standing Committee finally agreed to put Mr Zhou in the crosshairs. It may be that the original idea had been to warn Mr Zhou – or weaken his patronage network – by targeting his associates. But once this revealed a group of senior figures whose corruption derived from a sense of impunity generated by their links to him, it was thought necessary to bring down the big man.
That dovetails neatly with Mr Xi’s stated aim to bring down “both tigers and flies” in his pursuit of corruption (there is, by the way, a semi-official definition of tiger in this context – an official of vice-minister or vice-governor rank or above). As former keen students of the Soviet Union, Mr Xi and his cohorts will be well aware of the symbolic power of bringing down the previous administration’s top secret policeman. Call it the Beria effect. And perhaps the existence of a quasi-autonomous patronage network like Mr Zhou’s is no longer tolerable to a leadership whose major focus is on command and control. The real problem with Mr Zhou may ultimately boil down to the fact that he exists.
In the Moro Affair, Leonardo Sciascia’s classic story of betrayal, power and self interest in Italian politics, the kidnapped Italian prime minister slowly comes to realise that the political colleagues he counted on to release him were instead scheming to take advantage of the opportunities created by his permanent disposal. Likewise, as things stand now, many people in China will benefit from the downfall of Mr Zhou and his network. So many converging interests are behind his elimination that the process is now just too big to fail.
Jamie Kenny is a UK-based journalist and writer specialising in China