Something remarkable is happening in China. It’s not just that tens of thousands of officials have been caught in President Xi Jinping’s corruption dragnet, or that the crackdown continues unabated even though contributors to this blog and former Chinese Presidents alike have long wondered, “surely this can’t go on much longer?” Instead, I’m talking about how President Xi is using his anticorruption program to slowly and methodically take down Zhou Yongkang, the “most powerful man in China.”
The targeting of Mr. Zhou is at once both extraordinary and routine. On the one hand, his downfall is more about politics than corruption, retribution for backing the wrong man in the transition that catapulted Mr. Xi to power in 2012. On the other, the purging of rivals is seemingly a rite of passage for Chinese leaders; Mao did it aplenty in the 1950s and Presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin “each engineered a high-profile sacking of a political rival (Shanghai boss Chen Liang and Beijing boss Chen Xitong, respectively).” But even then, there’s something different about Zhou’s fall from power — he’s not a provincial party chief, he’s a former member of the almighty Politburo Standing Committee, the former head of China’s feared domestic security services, and the biggest “tiger” yet targeted by President Xi.
And it’s that realization — that Zhou’s fall is momentous — that raises the most interesting question in this dramatic collision of corruption and politics: How did a President, who came to power without a solid independent base within the factionalized Communist Party, manage in just three years to take down the “most powerful man in China”? The answer lies in an intuitive but methodically executed four-step plan developed by President Xi and his Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. In the hope of shedding some light on how other nations might similarly take down the simultaneously corrupt and dangerously powerful without undermining political stability, let’s examine how President Xi has slowly choked off Mr. Zhou’s power.
President Xi’s anticorruption prosecutions have followed a familiar pattern: much like a boa constrictor, his investigators take down their prey by increasing pressure on the official through “a tightening circle of investigations target[ing] the official’s family and associates” that culminates with “a brief announcement” that the official is under investigation, a criminal inquiry, and a perfunctory trial before a party-run court. To illustrate, consider the following four (overlapping) prongs of the anticorruption action taken against Zhou:
- Step 1 — Cut off the Official’s Power: When President Xi’s anticorruption investigators have set their sights on a new high-ranking official, the first step has often been to cut off or diminish his or her access to the official levers of power within the party and government. This opening salvo makes sense for a regime wanting to confront corruption without engendering instability: undercut the target’s direct authority before launching a full investigation that threatens his liberty and invites pushback. For Ling Jihua, a close ally of former President Hu and the former chief of the General Office of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, that meant a sudden demotion in September 2012 to a backwater department that dealt with non-party organizations. In the case of Lt. Gen. Gu Junshan, it meant a quiet dismissal from his post as the deputy chief of the General Logistics Department. And for Zhou Yongkang, it meant retirement from the Politburo Standing Committee when Mr. Xi’s faction secured control of the party in 2012.
- Step 2 — Isolate the Official: Even after Zhou retired, he “remained a potentially dangerous adversary” because, over the course of his long career — which included stints as the General Manager of China’s largest energy company, the party chief in Sichuan province, and the head of China’s police, courts, and domestic security services — he had developed many powerful friends throughout the nation’s sprawling bureaucracy. But as was common in China, Zhou’s patronage network was founded on corruption, and in a now familiar pattern, investigators used that leverage to slowly encircle and collapse Zhou’s bases of power. Take a few examples: In late 2012, the axe fell on Li Chuncheng, a former deputy party secretary in Sichuan alleged to have illegally parceled out lucrative oil and gas contracts at Zhou’s direction. The following year, Jiang Jiemin, Zhou’s successor at CNPC and the then-head regulator of China’s state-owned corporations, was made the subject of an official corruption inquiry. And in June 2014, it was Li Dongsheng, a former vice minister of public security and Gen. Xu Caihou, a former vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission and a reported supporter of Zhou’s political machinations, who were expelled from the party. Cut off from direct power, Zhou soon found himself losing friends throughout and influence over the instruments of state power in China.
- Step 3 — Rein in the Official’s Wealth and Co-Conspirators: As many commentators, including Matthew, have noted, bribe money in China often flows not to government officials directly but to their friends and families. (This is why Shanghai recently barred spouses and children of city officials from engaging in private business in the city.) For example, the family of former Premier Wen Jiabao reportedly amassed assets worth at least $2.7 billion, much of which was “hidden behind layers of partnerships and investment vehicles involving friends, work colleagues and business partners.” The sum held by 300 of Zhou’s family, friends, and allies: an even more staggering 90 billion yuan ($14.5 billion). With his political supporters increasingly on the ropes, Chinese investigators tightened their grip on Zhou by moving against both this illicit financial empire and his familial co-conspirators, detaining several relatives, including his wife, eldest son, in-laws, and brother.
- Step 4 — Prosecute the official: With his formal power stripped, his powerful allies under investigation, his fortune seized, and his family detained, Communist Party investigators finally moved against Zhou directly. In July 2014, the Communist Party formally expelled Zhou and announced that it was investigating him, making him the first member of the Politburo Standing Committee — the inner sanctum of Chinese political power — to be investigated for corruption. He was subsequently arrested in December 2014, with a formal indictment — charging bribery, abuse of power, and disclosing state secrets — to follow in April 2015. Though he has yet to face trial, Zhou’s conviction is only a matter of time in China’s assembly line justice system.
Now, I write not to praise President Xi’s manipulation of anticorruption enforcement for political ends; views on that and similar issues have been aired everywhere from this blog to the Diplomat. Instead, I want to strip this story, for a moment, of its political overtones and consider it for what it is: a successful example of an incumbent regime taking down a dangerous political figure on corruption charges. Maybe China and Zhou’s downfall are unique and it would be hard to transplant this boa constrictor model of prosecution to a different time and place. Or maybe, as I hope, there is a lesson to be learned here for other countries searching for a way to both take down the corrupt and powerful without throwing a nation into political chaos.