Yet even as Zhou amassed power, the political winds in China began to shift. In 2013, Xi Jinping became president and pledged to make anti-corruption the centerpiece of his agenda, responding (in no small part) to widespread public disgust at official wealth. Almost immediately, Xi forbade the visible signs of privilege—things like lavish banquets, Gucci handbags, and fancy cars—that once characterized China’s ruling class. As a result of his decree, high-end liquor sales are way down in China, and, naturally, public interest in government service has plummeted.
Xi’s war on ostentation is only one part of his campaign against corruption. He has also vowed to catch “tigers and flies,” or both powerful and middling officials, who violate the law. The first so-called tiger was Bo Xilai, the charismatic former party secretary of Chongqing who became embroiled in scandal in 2012 after his top aide, Wang Lijun, attempted to defect to the United States at its consulate in Chengdu. Last summer, in a trial noted for its relative transparency, Bo was found guilty of corruption, abuse of power, and acceptance of bribes, and is now serving a suspended death sentence. Zhou’s alleged crimes may lack the salaciousness of Bo’s (whose wife is said to have murdered a British businessman and asked Wang Lijun to cover up the crime), but he held far more actual power: Zhou was a Chinese combination of Dick Cheney and J. Edgar Hoover, as The Financial Times put it.
But despite the scale of the case against Zhou and his network, his downfall may have little to do with corruption at all. In the end, Zhou Yongkang’s larger crime will have been running afoul of Xi Jinping, who has already established himself as arguably China’s most powerful leader in decades.
In a country without a free press, an independent judiciary, or elections to hold officials accountable, corruption across all levels of government is systematic. Chinese officials are paid meager salaries, yet investigations by Bloomberg and The New York Times over the past two years have revealed just how wealthy government leaders and their families have become. And rather than empower the country’s media and activists to police corruption, Xi Jinping has repressed criticism more than any other Chinese leader in decades.
Instead, Zhou Yongkang’s problems are almost purely the result of maneuverings within elite Chinese politics. Far from being the unified monolith of popular imagination, the Communist Party consists of powerful factions that compete with one another for important government posts. Xi Jinping, the son of a senior Party official, belongs to the “princeling” faction, while Li Keqiang, China’s premier, is affiliated with officials who got their start in the Communist Youth League. Their accession to China’s top two positions was assured in 2007, when they were introduced as vice president and vice premier during a carefully orchestrated procession. But when the Standing Committee voted to strip Bo Xilai of his position as Chongqing’s party secretary, Zhou reportedly resisted. Soon, rumors began to swirl that Zhou had plotted to upend Xi’s accession to power and install Bo, instead, as president-to-be. In August of last year, one month after Bo Xilai’s conviction, China launched an investigation into the newly retired Zhou. He was last seen in public two months later.