There must be something in the air. Just days after North Korea announced the purge of the country’s former No. 2, Jang Song Taek, Beijing is brimming with rumors about the fate of a Chinese political giant: former security czar Zhou Yongkang, 71. For months now, people have been predicting Zhou’s downfall on corruption charges. Citing several unnamed sources, the New York Times on Dec. 16 reported that an investigation is in fact under way. But there has been no word yet from China’s government.
Investigating Zhou would, in many ways, break new ground. Trained in oil exploration, Zhou rode the country’s economic boom to the top echelons of the state-backed petroleum industry, became party secretary of the Sichuan province (population 80 million), and later head of China’s vast security apparatus. In this role he was tasked with “stability maintenance” and controlled a vast swath of the state — cops, prosecutors, courts, paramilitary forces, intelligence — with a budget rivaling that of the Chinese military. Until he retired last year, Zhou was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest level of power. It has been decades since a leader of his stature was probed.
Netting Zhou could, theoretically, bolster Xi Jinping’s high-profile, anticorruption push. Since coming to power last year, the Chinese President has pledged to tackle graft, vowing to take down both “tigers” (high-level officials) and “flies” (rank-and-file bureaucrats) within the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Since Zhou retired, several of his tiger associates have been sidelined or sacked. Li Chuncheng, a former deputy party chief of Sichuan province, is being investigated by an anticorruption commission, and Jiang Jiemin, Zhou’s protégé and former head of the China National Petroleum Corp., was sacked, to name just two.
But the politics of hunting Zhou are complicated. Even casual followers of Chinese elite politics know Zhou is linked to ousted political hotshot Bo Xilai, whose dramatic downfall became one of the biggest political scandals in the history of contemporary China. Bo was tried on charges of embezzlement, bribery and abuse of power in an unusually public, but carefully choreographed, September trial. “Bo’s unforgivable sin was to buck the system and campaign openly for a position on the Standing Committee,” wrote Richard McGregor, a journalist for the Financial Times and author of The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, in a recent dispatch for ChinaFile. “Zhou’s apparent support for him meant that Bo’s fall made him a marked man as well.”
For his sins, Bo was sentenced to life in prison. Will Zhou meet the same fate? Perhaps. But Beijing may opt for a more private takedown. The Bo case involved a very public flight by his security chief to a U.S. consulate and the murder of a British man, which, argued exiled Chinese journalist Chang Ping in a recent essay, forced the government to go public with what was essentially a power play — Bo had ambitions for the top that Xi and his allies could not countenance. “Without democratic elections, power will only be distributed internally,” Chang writes. “It’s no wonder that there have been, and will always be, constant power struggles behind closed doors.”
Indeed, taking down a tiger like Zhou could backfire, by calling attention to political infighting rather than the anticorruption campaign. The allegations against Zhou — which have not yet been announced and could not be independently confirmed — include corruption to the tune of billions, links to organized crime and a plot to overthrow the government. This is not the kind of stuff that inspires confidence in the men charged with jointly running China. “The exposure of these inside events is a loud and definitive slap to the face of the scribblers on the regime’s payroll who have advocated the advantages of a ‘collective presidency,’” writes Chang.
And that’s the trouble with this type of high-level purge. When you chase one of your own, you end up revealing yourself. North Korea’s propagandists spread the word that the Kim family was infallible and universally loved. Going public with the case against Jang undid that work, laying bare the ugliest kind of palace intrigue.
Similarly, prosecuting Zhou would offer a rare glimpse into the life and livelihood of a man at the highest levels of the Chinese state. That is a risky prospect for men who prefer to keep their lives private. Stories on the wealth of President Xi and former Premier Wen Jiabao by Bloomberg and the New York Times respectively resulted in their websites being blocked. The Xi government has detained activists who called for officials to publicly declare their assets.
There are many differences, of course, between North Korea and China — and between Jang and Zhou. Still, you have to imagine China’s leaders are watching carefully, noting lessons for their own hunt.