Why China's Former Security Czar Is in Serious Trouble

The house arrest of Zhou Yongkang is the latest sign of Xi Jinping's consolidation of power. But why is it happening?

This man is in deep trouble. (Jason Lee/Reuters)  

Pin Ho, co-author of Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel: Murder, Money, and an Epic Power Struggle in China:

[Zhou Yongkang’s downfall] is the second chapter of the “Bo Xilai Drama”—a drama begun at the 18th Party Congress. The Party’s power transition has been secret and has lacked convincing procedure. This [lack of transparency] has triggered unimaginably huge debates within the Party. Every retiring Politburo Standing member has been trying hard to pick their own successors. Zhou Yongkang picked Bo Xilai as the Secretary of Political and Legal Affairs. There was a hidden attempt behind this arrangement—a challenge to Xi Jinping’s power. Now, the Party is done with Bo Xilai and has started to handle Zhou Yongkang.

Xi Jinping plans to use Zhou Yongkang as a sacrifice in his anti-corruption campaign. If Xi failed to break the unwritten rule that the Politburo Standing members are immune to any legal punishment, his anti-corruption would have no teeth. Zhou Yongkang’s corruption has been well-known and people both inside and outside of the Party hate him. Thus, he has become the best tool to build up Xi Jinping’s power.

Richard McGregor, Washington bureau chief of The Financial Times and former Beijing bureau chief

Through the fog of factional war that invariably envelopes any top-level corruption investigation in China, we can be clear about one thing if Zhou Yongkang is in fact the target of an official graft probe. 

Xi Jinping’s willingness to take on a once-serving member of the Politiburo standing committee will confirm the assessment a number of China experts have already made of him—that he is a singularly powerful leader; certainly the most powerful General Secretary of the CCP since Deng Xiaoping.

Equally, a formal graft probe, if confirmed, will not be evidence of something else being bandied around by some commentators—that Xi is finally “getting serious” about corruption.

Under CCP rules—in which the party catches and kills its own, through its own internal justice system, free of any of the constraints of the law (such as it is)—corruption probes inherently are political decisions. An investigation of someone as senior as Zhou is thus a high wire act, requiring Xi to not only get the support of serving members of the inner sanctum but also the informal council of elders who are consulted on sensitive issues. To secure such consensus, Xi clearly has lots of power, and balls.

Zhou is no small fish. The trail of the investigation so far has walked the world through his power bases—the sprawling province of Sichuan, where he was once the top official; the “petroleum mafia,” once-impregnable fortresses of the big state-owned oil giants, which have deep military connections; and finally in the state security establishment, which he oversaw under Hu Jintao.

I suspect the threshold decision to take on Zhou was made concurrently with the move against Bo Xilai. Bo’s unforgivable sin was to buck the system and campaign openly for a position on the standing committee. Zhou’s apparent support for him meant that Bo’s fall made him a marked man as well. But still, Xi has clearly let the investigators have their head, as evidenced by the detention of various senior executives in the oil industry, and also Zhou’s own son.

Why, then, given the audacity of Xi’s move, could anyone suggest he is “not serious” about corruption?

Prosecutors, and prosecutions, even in democratic systems, can be tainted by politics. But in China, politics trumps all other considerations. Certainly, Xi’s anti-corruption rhetoric seems to have put some five-star restaurants out of business, as state and private businesses cut back on ostentatious entertaining. In Wang Qishan, he has an exceptionally tough head of the CCP’s anti-graft body. But still, there is no good reason other than power politics for why Zhou and his family should be investigated instead of, say, that of the outgoing premier, Wen Jiabao, or perhaps even members of Xi's own family. Both have amassed enormous wealth, chronicled in detail by The New York Times and Bloomberg News, yet they remain untouchable.

So while we shouldn’t shed any tears for Zhou Yongkang—it couldn't happen to a nicer guy, as the saying goes—let’s equally not pretend Xi is ushering in a new era of fearless prosecution of graft.

A version of this post first appeared at ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site.