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China: Erstwhile Top Party & State leader Zhou Yongkang Sentenced; What Next?; By D. S. Rajan

C3S Paper No. 0130/ 2015


On June 11, 2015, Zhou Yongkang (73), who formerly held the posts of  member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s 17th  Politburo Standing Committee  (PBSC) which is the  highest decision-making body in China, Secretary of the CCP’s  Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which is in charge of  China’s security and intelligence apparatus and State Councilor of the PRC government,  was sentenced to life  for  “accepting bribes, abusing power and deliberately disclosing state secrets”  by the Intermediate Court in Tianjin. Zhou took bribes of about 130 million Yuan (21.3 million U.S. dollars), leaked five “extremely confidential” documents and one “confidential” document to an unauthorized person identified as Cao Yongzheng, directly contravening of the State Secrets Law, said the court judgment. According to Xinhua (June 11, 2015), as disclosure of state secrets was involved, Zhou’s trial was not open to the public. It added that Zhou pleaded guilty and will not appeal.

2. Interesting is the politician-astrologer nexus which has been seen in ‘communist’ China in the case of Zhou. The Chinese official media have described the ‘unauthorized’ Cao as a Fengshui Master , curer of diseases and fortune teller, close to Zhou’s son Zhou Bin and a host of former senior provincial leaders, now under detention,  like  Li Chuncheng, who headed the party in  Sichuan, and Guo Yongxiang, who was  vice governor of that  province. [1]

3. Zhou is the highest-ranking former politician to be convicted since the case relating to punishment of   Mao Zedong’s wife and other members of the “Gang of Four” witnessed in 1981. Also, this is for the first time a former PBSC member, has been legally punished which, reflects[2] the boldness of the CCP Chief and PRC President Xi Jinping to deviate from the unwritten party regulation (xingbushang chang wei) providing for exemption to serving and retired PBSC members from prosecution.

4. The court verdict lacks many details, but opinions of experts have made charges against Zhou Yongkang more explicit. The following appear notable:

a) “ New Gang of Four”:Zhou , along with Xu Caihou (now deceased) , former vice chairman  of the Central Military Commission, Ling Jihua,  former aide to President Hu Jintao  and former Chingqing party secretary  Bo Xilai,  who was sentenced to life imprisonment in August 2014 for corruption and abuse of power,  are now being described in China as belonging to a “new gang of four” challenging Xi [3].

b) “Factional fight against Xi”: Zhou,  Xu and Ling , constituted a faction opposing Xi and their actions were deeply intertwined.[4] Xi’s purge of the three could mark his political plotting against the latter[5]. Zhou along with Bo indulged in “Non-organizational political activities”[6] (Remarks: Such references of a Chinese official daily and supreme court are of interest; they seem to admit that problem with Zhou is political besides concerning discipline violation). Zhou’s activities are attempts to set up a power base in China, alternate to that of Xi Jinping.[7]  Zhou picked Bo as the Secretary of Political and Legal Affairs Commission which was a hidden attempt to challenge Xi Jinping’s power.  Zhou and Bo conspired to sabotage China’s market reforms and return to the revolutionary era[8].

c) Zhou’s links with foreign intelligence officers: Zhou leaked state secrets on counter terrorism, Uighur activists and nuclear programmes in North Korea and Iran, to chiefs of foreign intelligence agencies whom he met.[9]

5. A net result of Zhou’s downfall will be a boost to Xi Jinping’s further consolidation of his political power; he has already become the supreme leader in China. He is the General Secretary of the CCP, President of the PRC, Chairman of the CCP and State Central Military commissions and head of the newly created National Security Council. He leads many ‘leading central groups’, dealing with  important areas such as foreign affairs, financial and economic work, cyber security and information technology, and military reforms. Altogether, Xi occupies a total of 11 top posts in the country’s most powerful leadership bodies. This would mean that all institutions of the party, state council and military are now directly reporting to the PBSC and thus only to Xi. As the Chinese journal Caixin puts it[10], Xi Jinping has become the de facto Chairman of the CCP.

6. Xi may feel the need to maintain and further expand his existing leadership positions in the run up to the next CCP Congress in 2017. Five out of the seven current PBSC members are expected to step down during that occasion, having reached the retirement age of 68 for top leaders. In the absence of potential challenges to his leadership, subsequent to Zhou’s removal from the scene, Xi may find appropriate to move as many of his protégés into the PBSC and Central Committee at that Congress; in this regard, the atmosphere which has arisen from Xi’s ability to use Zhou as a sacrificial pawn to ensuring the success of his anti-corruption campaign, appears a helpful sign.

7. Will Xi’s anti-corruption campaign net more ‘tigers’ now? The answer seems to be uncertain. The praising in the editorial of the CCP’s flagship newspaper[11] to Zhou’s trial by saying that “no matter how much power one holds or how high one’s position, one will surely be severely punished for violating Party discipline and state laws”, signal that there could be no end to Xi’s pursuit of corrupt ‘tigers’. But Zhou’s sentence to life and not conducting a public trial for him, appear relatively lenient treatment indicating Xi’s caution at the moment in the interest of maintaining unity at leadership levels. A factor behind such caution on Xi’s part could be the divisions which may have risen within the CCP as his anti-corruption campaign has chosen   loyalists of Jiang Zemin as targets. Domestic reservations on the campaign which began in late 2012 could be another factor. Such reservations have reportedly come from[12] from China’s leaders of previous generations, but still influential, like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. On their part, the Chinese party and state-controlled media[13] have themselves admitted the existence of viewpoints in China that anti-corruption work will hamper the country’s economic development and damage reputation and image of the government. The Central Discipline Inspection Commission website admitted  in the last week of February 2015 that some in China are calling for an end to the campaign under fears that it will go too far if continues.

8. What is therefore likely to happen is that the ‘tigers’ (like Ling Jihua, former Aide to President Hu Jintao, General Guo Boxiung, former politburo member and former Vice Chairman    of the Central Military Commission, now reportedly suffering from cancer and Li Chuncheng, former deputy party secretary of Sichuan) who have already been reported as detained and brought under the purview of investigation, will be brought to justice as in the case of Zhou Yongkang. One can only speculate on whether or not there could be more high level purges. One thing looks certain; from now on, Xi’s focus could be on catching ‘flies’ at the grassroots level. Confirming this likely scenario has been the comment of a senior CCP official[14]  that after the downfall of ‘tigers’, it is “quite natural for the graft bust to funnel down to lower official investigations”. In fact,  concentration  on curbing  lower level corruption has already begun-  Sun Hongzhi, vice minister of the State Administration for Industry & Commerce, and  Liao Yongyuan, former general manager with China National Petroleum Corporation, have been  expelled from the CCP on corruption charges on June 15,2015.

9. India may have reasons to be curious about the conviction of Zhou Yongkang in China.In November 2010; Zhou visited India and met leaders of the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party and left groups.

10. “Zhou Yongkang may well have been corrupt. His real problem was losing a power struggle” – this quote from the Economist (December 13, 2014) aptly sums up the situation.

[1] http;//English.caixin.com/2014-04-21/ 100668166.html  dated april 21, 2014

[2] Willy Lam in his book “Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping”, Routledge,  March 24,  2015

[3]“Xi Dismantles the ‘New Gang of Four’ With Probe of Hu’s Aide”, December 23, 2014,  http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-12-23/xi-dismantles-china-s-new-gang-of-four-with-probe-of-hu-s-aide.

[4] former Deputy editor of People’s Daily, Zhou Ruijin, China Digital Times,  March 21, 2015

[5] Beijing Youth Daily, as quoted by New York Times, China Digital Times, March 21, 2015.

[6] 2014 Annual Report of the Supreme Court, “China’s Supreme Court  uses novel rhetoric in new corruption allegations”, China Daily, USA, quoting Xinhua, March 19, 2015

[7]  Liu Dawen, former editor of Hongkong-based political magazine Outpost, Radio Free Asia, March 19 2015).

[8] ifeng.com, a news website run by Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV, January 5, 2015

[9] Sunday Times, UK, “ China’s tyrant spy chief faces death for leaking state secrets”,   December 7, 2014 http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/world_news/Asia/article1492528.ece

[10] “Xi Has Vision to Guide Party to 2049”, Cai Xin, Yang Guangbin, March 16, 2015

[11] Nobody is above the law: People’s Daily, June 11,2015  http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-06/11/c_134318995.htm

[12] The Diplomat, quoting Financial Times, April 4,2014

[13]  Caixin, March 11, 2015

[14] Cai Xia, Professor with the Party School of the CCP Central Committee, China Focus: China’s anti-graft drive zooms in on “flies”, English.news.cn, May 27,2015

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email: dsrajan@gmail.com)

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