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Zhou Yongkang Verdict: Corruption crackdown or political struggle?; By Prof. B. R. Deepak

C3S Paper No. 0128/ 2015


In a closed door trial in Tianjin on 22 May 2015, Zhou Yongkang, China’s former security chief and member of the Communist Party’s Standing Committee of Political Bureau until his retirement in 2012, was sentenced to life imprisonment, which was announced only on 11 June. With this Zhou has become the highest-level communist official being convicted after the ‘Gang of Four’ at the close of the Cultural Revolution. He has been convicted of taking bribes amounting to $21.3 million. Many of his family members and those who benefited from his stature have been named and are being tried. After hearing the quantum of punishment, Chinese media have reported that Zhou has pleaded guilty and remorseful his wrongdoings.

Why has the trial been kept secret? There are clamors that high level state secrets are involved; two, to avoid external interference; and three, to prevent the case going out of control. The court ruled out that revealing of the five ‘extremely confidential’ and one ‘confidential’ document did not have any serious consequences; if so, the analysts believe that these are pointer to hordes of internal Party secrets, as Zhou had direct access to these while at the helm of country’s internal security, the budget of which exceeds that of the PLA’s. Also, he had been on the as Political and Law Committee of the CPC for ten long years.

On March 18th Supreme People’s Court in its While paper, 6th since 2010, indicted Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai of ‘Non organizational Political Activities’ (非组织政治活动) generating fears that Zhou may get harsher punishment, and also a pointer that even super tigers such as Jiang Zemin and Zeng Qinghong may be the next targets of Xi Jinping’s corruption campaign. Also, not giving Zhou harsher punishment would mean that Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) requires Zhou for revealing details of other ‘tigers’ and ‘flies’ behind the scene whom the commission is intending to investigate for ‘serious disciplinary violations’ an euphemism for corruption.

Other people who have been indicted include Jiang Jiemin, China National Petroleum Corporation’s (CNPC) Party chief between 2006 and 12; Wu Bing, who allegedly served as proxy in business for Zhou Yongkang’s son Zhou Bin; Ding Xuefeng, former mayor of Lüliang, Shanxi Province; Wen Qingshan, former chief accountant of the CNPC; and Zhou Hao, former Party chief of Liaohe oilfield in Northeast China.

It may be reminded that after ascending to power in late 2012, Xi Jinping put a check to official extravagance, lavish official banquets, foreign leisure travels by officials, exchange of gifts etc.  and pledged to take on ‘flies and tigers’ alike. The crackdown on corruption has been interpreted in many ways inside China. The official interpretation is that since the legitimacy of the Communist Party is at stake, President Xi has no other alternative but to clean the party from within. Other popular discourse is that this is a power struggle within the Party; the crackdown is just a mean to silent the opponents, as is evident from the white paper issued by the Supreme People’s Court indicting Bo Xilai and Zhou for engaging in ‘anti organizational activities.’

Even though Bo Xilai was proved during the fag end of Hu Jintao’s regime, however, his close associates have been proved under Xi. It is amply clear that over ambitious Bo, a princeling pitching him against another princeling, could not have the sway as he wished for the top post in China. Moreover, Zhou and Bo are allegedly said to have met several times when Bo was heading the CPC in Chongqing. It is believed that it was Zhou who apprised Bo about Wang Lijun’s asylum in US consulate in Chengdu, which lead the lid off British businessman Haywood’s poisoning by Bo’s wife and ultimately the fall of Bo Xilai.

Cleansing the ‘Military tigers’ is another act analysts see Xi consolidating his power. The biggest catch has been diseased Xu Caihou, former Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission held for cash for rank. It has been reported that there are 34 more people being investigated for ‘serious discipline breach.’ Yang Jinshan, second in command of the Chengdu Military Division is another. There are other ‘military tigers’ who have benefited from Xu’s position and are being investigated. Lt. General Gu Junshan, former deputy director of the logistics department of the PLA is just one of them.

The fallout of these campaigns is that the stories of ‘a mistress behind every successful communist party official’ has waned out, signifying the impact. The stories of jilted mistresses exposing the sexcapades and other wrong doing of the official, for example the case of Liu Tienan, former deputy chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission have almost disappeared. Liu was fired after his mistress revealed to media that he had embezzled $200 million from banks. Though there are cases such as Ling Jihua, former head of the central committee’s United Front Work Department, and once top aide of former president Hu Jintao. His abuse of power was exposed in March 2012 when his son Ling Gu died in a Ferrari accident that has one nude and another semi nude girl on board. A debate set the social media ablaze as to how a son of a party official can afford $800,000 car!

The intensity of the anti corruption drive in China is indeed great, and the people are supportive of President Xi’s drive. Last year alone, the CCDI investigated 68 high ranking official, and punished more than 70,000 officials for graft. Since last January, it has also launched an official website, www.ccdi.gov.cn that allows netizens or the whistleblowers to interact with disciplinary officials. Wang Qishan, head of the CCDI has said that the site will be a bridge between the public and anti-corruption agencies. It appears that the drive will be a long drawn battle, and many in China fear that  may well lead to troubles for President Xi Jinping.

(Prof. B R Deepak is Professor of China Studies at the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own. He could be reached atbdeepak@mail.jnu.ac.in)

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