Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption purge peaked this week with the official announcement of the investigation and presumed detention of Zhou Yongkang. The former domestic security chief is the most senior Chinese official to be targeted since Xi’s probe was launched in early 2013, and indeed since the Communist Party took power in 1949; he is accused of “serious violations of Party discipline,” i.e., corruption.
So, the president is sticking to his word – rooting out graft from within his government at all levels, targeting “tigers” and “flies” alike. Yet, that a heavyweight like Zhou is now being investigated attests to the more self-serving nature of the probe. (We can’t help but note the irony here of Xi’s simultaneous heavy-handed crackdown on anti-corruption activists). Until his retirement in 2012, Zhou controlled the national police apparatus as well as domestic intelligence agencies. What’s more, as one of the nine leaders of the Politburo Standing Committee, he held one of the highest positions in China – in other words, a potential rival. In a sign that Zhou’s time was up, in recent months Beijing had detained at least a dozen of his accomplices in an ring dubbed the “petrol faction,” which was composed of communist officials with dubious (and lucrative) ties to the country’s oil industry.
Xi may be on shaky ground here. The Chinese leader is breaking an unspoken rule that Politburo members have judicial immunity, even after their retirement, for the sake of the Communist Party’s stability. Not that the threat of an internal pushback is slowing him down. Other top officials caught in Xi’s dragnet include the police chief of Tianjin, Wu Changshun, senior police official Wang Suyu, former military officer Xu Caihou, and the most high profile target yet – until Zhou that is — Bo Xilai, a former senior official from the Community Party.
With Zhou gone, Xi is free to fill vacant positions within China’s massive domestic security network with his own men. The implications are vast. Xi is sending a message that not only is he (and his number 2 Wang Qishan) in charge but also that China’s political elite is no longer safe from prosecution. The anti-graft campaign has gained support among the Chinese populace, which is largely happy to see corrupt officials axed, Xi’s political motives notwithstanding. In the coming months, look for the fall of more seemingly untouchable political power players. Xi reportedly has his predecessor Hu Jintao and Hu’s own predecessor, Jiang Zemin in his crosshairs (both men control influential factions within the Party). Yet as the president’s campaign intensifies, with corruption allegations now being leveled against television stations, state-owned enterprises and foreign companies, so will fears of a Maoist-era purge. It remains to be seen how far Xi’s zeal will take him.