The 'Most Powerful Man in China' Is About to Be Purged

And it's about politics, not corruption.

Zhou Yongkang in 2007, when he was China's public security minister. (Reuters/Jason Lee)

Like Yule logs, white bread, and elevator music, Chinese politics are designed to be boring, a consequence of the tumultuous Mao Zedong years. But for the second time in the young presidency of Xi Jinping, a major Chinese official is on the verge of formal indictment for the charge of corruption. On Sunday, Reuters reported that Chinese officials had seized $14.5 billion in assets from individuals tied to Zhou Yongkang, a retired official who has been described as China’s most powerful man. Zhou himself has not yet been charged with a crime, but his conviction and incarceration are all but assured; in China’s justice system, verdicts are mostly determined before trials even begin. Zhou, who up until 2012 controlled China’s vast internal-security portfolio, with a budget exceeding that for national defense, will arguably be the most important official purged in the history of the People’s Republic.

Who is Zhou Yongkang, and why is he in trouble? The official reason is corruption. Raised in a village near Wuxi, in Jiangsu province, the 71-year-old Zhou rose through the ranks of China’s oil industry, becoming chairman of China’s National Petroleum Corporation in 1996. Successively important government posts followed, and by 2007 Zhou had earned one of the nine seats on the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest governing body. If ever a man seemed untouchable, it was Zhou. Running domestic security in a country obsessed with internal threats, he managed to obtain vast power. Zhou, more than anyone else in China, knows where the bodies are buried.

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.

Zhou’s stature—and the amount of assets he and his associates controlled—make his downfall salacious news. But purges of this sort are hardly unusual in China. Xi Jinping’s immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, each engineered a high-profile sacking of a political rival (Shanghai boss Chen Liangyu and Beijing boss Chen Xitong, respectively). Mao Zedong, too, had high-ranking officials publicly executed in the 1950s.

But if Zhou’s purge doesn’t deviate from the historical norm in China, it does call into question the country’s reputation for political stability, which has in recent years become a central part of China’s “soft power.” Writing in Foreign Affairs in 2012, the venture capitalist Eric X. Li praised the “resilience” of the Communist Party, arguing that the way it selects leaders is, in contrast to Western democracies, largely meritocratic. Untroubled by opposition or the will of the voters, China’s “meritocrats” pushed through a stimulus package in 2008 that spared the country the worst of the global financial crisis. Comparing this approach with American gridlock, Thomas Friedman publicly wished that the United States could be China for a day in the pages of The New York Times.

The Zhou Yongkang takedown does not necessarily mean that the Communist Party is terminally ill or anywhere near collapse. But Xi’s purge does lead to more questions than answers. Is Zhou the last “tiger” in the president’s crosshairs? Or is he simply a prelude to a sustained drive against political enemies, intended to install Xi’s allies in the country’s top political and corporate positions? What, exactly, is the end game?

These concerns abound within China, too. The Financial Times reported that Jiang Zemin, China’s still-influential 87-year-old ex-president, warned Xi to rein in the anti-corruption campaign, for fear of destabilizing Party rule. Whether Xi takes his advice or not, it’s now apparent that the quietly efficient image the Communist Party presents to the world obscures a tumultuous underbelly.