Does a Purge of Senior Officials Mean China’s Serious About Its Corruption Problem?

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Hu Qingming / Imaginechina / AP

Guo Yongxiang, then chairman of the Foundation for Arts and Literary Circles in Sichuan, delivers a speech at a ceremony in Beijing in 2011

The brief notice on the Chinese Ministry of Supervision’s website on June 23 seemed like just another example of an obscure but wayward official being brought to justice as part of President Xi Jinping’s half-year crusade against graft. Guo Yongxiang is being investigated for “serious disciplinary violations,” often a code word for corruption. The 64-year-old might not sound like a particularly august individual; his only title is that of chairman of Sichuan province’s Foundation for Arts and Literary Circles. But remember that Deng Xiaoping, China’s Paramount Leader, as he was often dubbed, didn’t actually hold the title of “Paramount Leader.” In fact, for many years, Deng only filled one official post, that of the honorary chairman of the country’s Bridge Association — the card game, not the water-spanning structures.

Indeed, Guo is far more than a simple patron of the arts. He was once vice governor of Sichuan, one of China’s most populous provinces, and he is one of six officials of that leadership rank to have been netted since Xi’s antigraft campaign began late last year. More important, though, Guo was for years a right-hand man to Zhou Yongkang, the man who ran China’s surveillance state until his retirement during the most recent leadership transition. When Zhou, a grim-faced hard-liner, served as party secretary of the state-run China National Petroleum Corporation, Guo served by his side. When Zhou took a post as Minister of Land and Resources, Guo transferred to the same ministry. The same happened yet again when Zhou was shifted to Sichuan, where he served as the province’s party boss from 1999 to 2002.

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Zhou, who was a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, the coterie of men who rule China, appeared in the news extensively last year as the political patron of Bo Xilai, the once high-flying politician whose purge was the most riveting political drama in China over the past decade. Bo has been charged with corruption and various abuse-of-power transgressions and is currently awaiting trial. His wife Gu Kailai pleaded guilty last year to the murder of a British business consultant and was handed a suspended death sentence.

While some businessmen and political operatives associated with Bo were purged in the weeks and months after his scandal broke, Zhou quietly retired in November, something he was rule-bound to do because of his advanced age. Still, the rumor mill churned on Weibo, China’s social-media service, where Zhou was nicknamed “instant noodles” because his full name was often blocked by state censors. (One instant-noodle brand is called Master Kang, which uses a Chinese character that is the same as the kang in Zhou’s name.) Did his membership of the Standing Committee make him too high ranking a figure to pursue? Did his position as China’s security chief give him access to an armory of political ammunition that he could use against anyone wishing to seek his downfall?

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Now, though, Guo is being targeted, and in December another Zhou subordinate, Sichuan’s former deputy party secretary Li Chuncheng was sacked amid graft accusations. Yet another top official linked to Zhou, Wu Yongwen, saw his career fizzle in January amid similar charges. In a speech early this year, Xi reiterated his commitment to a cleanup of the ruling Communist Party, whether senior-level “tigers” or lowly “flies.” It’s worth noting that at least half of the tigers netted so far appear to have some connection to the former security czar.

Meanwhile, despite an initial flurry of speculation earlier this year that Bo’s trial would soon begin, no trial date has been announced. The former Chongqing party chief has been in detention for well over a year. But if all is outwardly quiet on this political front, on June 26 unrest bubbled up thousands of miles away in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, where a large population of Turkic Muslim Uighurs live. At least 27 lives were lost in the morning riots, including those of nine security personnel.

The Chinese state press, not always the most reliable source on ethnic violence, described the mayhem as having been caused by “knife-wielding mobs” attacking police and government buildings, forcing the police to open fire. Like the Tibetans, Uighurs have complained about repression at the hands of the Chinese state. This was the second time in two months that violence has exploded in Xinjiang. Those previous clashes claimed 21 lives, according to official figures. It’s safe to say former security chief Zhou — who presided over a massive crackdown in Xinjiang after riots erupted in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009 — would not have been pleased by these recent unruly developments.

With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

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