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.