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China: Another Top Level Party Purge? Zhou Yongkang next Bo Xilai?

The trial of Bo Xilai, former politburo member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee, arrested on charges of ‘bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power’, has ended in Jinan, Shandong Province, on 26 September 2013. A verdict, expected to be delivered at a ‘later date’, will certainly mark the official closure to the case involving Bo, whose last public appearance was in a press conference at the March 2012 annual session of China’s National People’s Congress. Bo’s trial is comparable to the hearings involving politburo members of the past (the ‘gang of four’ consisting Mao Zedong’s widow , Jiang Qing and three others in 1980-81; Chen Xitong, former Beijing party chief in 1998 and Chen Liangyu, Shanghai CCP Secretary in 2007). Despite the official stress that Bo’s case is related only to corruption, one cannot underestimate the trial’s political importance given the high family connection, charisma and the mass appeal to a degree enjoyed by the disgraced leader and the wide expectation prevailed in China on Bo’s appointment to the membership of the supreme decision making party body- the politburo standing committee (PBSC). Interesting is the reemphasis of the new CCP Supremo Xi Jinping on the need for the party to follow a mass line, a theme which was prominent for Bo also. Some analysts seem to be right in seeing in Xi ‘s political discourse evidences of ‘Bo-ism without Bo’; the discourse, indeed touches on a mix of priorities – the party should reach up the masses , while concentrating on fighting corruption and building rule of law in the country .

Providing a context to the Bo Xilai affair and the campaign against corruption unfolding in China, have been the remarks of Xi Jinping made early this year. He called ( 22 January 2013) for ‘cracking down at the same time on tigers and flies’ indulging in corruption, while averring that ‘there would be no exception when it comes to party disciplines and law and that no leniency would be meted out no matter who is involved’. The message given by Xi is unambiguous – if corrupt, whether big or small , all have to go. Going by latest signals coming from China, looking very likely are investigations on more high level corruption cases which can have the same political impact as that coming from Bo’s case. In the immediate sense, a particular target seems to be Zhou Yongkang , a close ally of Bo Xilai, who was a member of the 17th CCP Politburo Standing Committee and Secretary of the CCP Commission for Political and Legal Affairs (CPLA), a powerful body looking after intelligence, security and law enforcement in the country. Overseas Chinese sources like Duowei News claim that in early August 2013, a consensus was reached among the PBSC members to investigate Zhou. Zhou Yongkang’s case also reportedly figured in the annual party leadership meeting at Beidaihe resort in Hebei province (Oriental Daily, 11 August 2013). For a long term picture , however, one may have to wait for the reforms and anti-corruption plans for next four years to be unveiled at the forthcoming Third CCP Central Committee Plenum.

Indications are that violation of party discipline and financial irregularities could be among the charges which could be levelled against Zhou Yongkang. According to rumours, Zhou ordered armed police units under him to block the entrance of Zhongnanhai leadership compound in an attempt to stage a leadership coup in March 2012. He retired from party posts during the 18th CCP Congress in November last year without blemish. The strength of the Politburo Standing Committee was reduced from nine to seven. The new CPLA leader was Meng Jianzhu, elected to the politburo, but not to the PBSC which appeared a leadership move to curtail the perceived disproportionate powers which the CPLA was enjoying. Zhou Yongkang’s last known public appearance was on 29 April 2013 when, according to State media, he visited the Suzhou Middle school along with Jiangsu party Chief Luo Zhijun. Zhou Yongkang is known abroad. He visited India in 2010 and later met the then visiting Indian foreign minister S.M.Krishna at Beijing in 2012.

Removal from power of and launch of investigations against some key Zhou Yongkang followers for indulging in corruption and defying the party line, indicate that the former security Czar of China may be coming under a cloud. To illustrate, a Zhou confidante Li Chuncheng, was removed as the deputy party chief of Sichuan province and detained in December last year and two officials linked to him like former Hubei Politics and Law Committee Secretary Wu Yongwen, and Sichuan Literary Federation Chairman Guo Yongxiang, Zhou’s secretary for 18 years, were detained in January 2013 and June 2013 respectively. The ongoing investigations in the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) over which Zhou Yongkang had absolute control, are also hinting at the possibility of his impending fall from favour. The CNPC probe being conducted by the State Council’s Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, involves Zhou’s close allies like Wang Yongchun, Vice-President and former head of the Daqing oil field, Li Hualin, Deputy Manager, Ran Xinquan, Director and Wang Daofu, Chief Geologist, PetroChina.

Adding to speculations on Zhou Yongkang’s future are unconfirmed reports about the whereabouts of his son Zhou Bin. According to an overseas Chinese report (Boxun.com), Zhou Bin has fled to the US with his family in an attempt to evade China’s anti-graft authorities. Another despatch of the same category ( Duowei News ) says that Zhou Yongkang’s son has left China for Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia . It is also being disclosed in the media that Zhou Bin, has been arrested two months back (Sound of Hope Radio, quoting Chinese Public Security Ministry sources).

Zhou Yongkang is not a ‘princeling’ like Bo Xilai; but he had held the membership in the PBSC, the supreme policy making body in China. He especially shaped the country’s policy in the oil sector and held sway over the national security affairs. Already Bo Xilai affair has tested the cohesiveness of the Chinese leadership. If Zhou Yongkang, another senior party figure, falls from grace at this juncture and further party purges on corruption charges follow, the leadership of Xi Jinping may come to face serious political consequences. At this juncture, when ‘seven perils’ are being identified in China (CCP document No.9, reported upon in august 2013), as confronting the nation , including promotion of “Western constitutional democracy”, ‘Universal values of human rights ”, “ media independence and civic participation”, “pro-market neo-liberalism” and “nihilist criticisms of party’s past”, what China may need utmost is leadership unity and stability. So expect Xi Jinping to handle the Zhou Yongkang case with maximum care.

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies. Email;director.c3s@gmail.com)

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