Two years ago Zhou Yongkang was responsible for China’s public security, and ranked as one of the most powerful men in the country.
According to a post on the People’s Daily’s social media site last weekend, he now spends his days in detention in the small town of Yanggu in Shandong province.
The news was soon deleted, but it merits mention because Yanggu features in one of the tales about Wu Song, a legendary character from the novel Water Margin.
Wu is best known for a deadly encounter with a tiger. Walking home after a boozy session at a local hostelry, he is attacked by the man-eater. But he pins it down and bashes its head open with his fists.
It is the symbolism of the beast’s fate that is drawing interest, following Xi Jinping’s vow two years ago to hunt down “tigers” and “flies” – powerful leaders and lowly bureaucrats – in his campaign against graft.
As the most senior official since the founding of the People’s Republic of China to be tried for corruption, Zhou is easily the biggest tiger to be caught so far. Hence the suspicion that Yanggu may have been mentioned deliberately. “The place could have been hand-picked by Xi after nuanced consideration,” Qiao Mu, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told Bloomberg. “The battle against Zhou is his masterpiece and he wants every single detail to be perfect.”
Zhou first came under internal review for “severe disciplinary violations” last December although the investigation wasn’t confirmed publicly till July (see WiC248). Last Friday the 25-person Politburo met for a final review of its findings and at midnight it was announced that Zhou had been expelled from the Communist Party. State prosecutors then confirmed that they had arrested him, opening an investigation of their own.
Zhou stands accused of violating Party rules and state laws, and trading his power for sex and money. The statement suggests that he abused his authority to make huge profits from state businesses, resulting in major losses of assets, Xinhua said.
Last month the People’s Daily published similar allegations that Zhou was the kingpin of a “commonwealth of crime” stretching across five circles: Sichuan province, the oil sector, the security services, his political aides, plus his friends and relatives.
Most of these groups are now scrambling to show their support for the case against him. “We have to self-consciously safeguard the Party’s unity. We are firmly against nepotism and forging political circles,” promised the Party’s provincial committee in Sichuan on Friday.
The PLA Daily, an army newspaper, was similarly resolute: “All agree that the move indicates clear direction from the central Party… it has deeply won the hearts of the Party, the military and the people.”
A statement from CNPC, China’s largest oil firm, made clear that its senior bosses backed the decision with “firm resolution” too.
Zhou’s case is likely to be heard in the spring, although his former position as head of domestic security, as well as the likelihood that he will be charged with leaking state secrets, means that proceedings at his trial are unlikely to be made public.
With a guilty verdict looking all but certain, he is expected to get the death penalty, commuted to life imprisonment.
Zhou’s downfall is also being interpreted as further evidence of Xi Jinping’s firm grip on power, although Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, believes that Xi must have promised his colleagues not to go after another “big tiger” for the remainder of his first term, which runs to 2017.
Nonetheless, breaching the unspoken agreement that former Politburo bosses should be left to enjoy untroubled retirements is a bold move. It could mean that changes at the top get more turbulent in the years ahead as incumbents battle to protect their positions.
Animal instincts have played a key part in the narrative surrounding Zhou’s arrest. “Even a monster-size tiger like Zhou cannot escape the fate of being shut in a cage,” law professor Yin Xiaohu told Xinhua. “The case not only demonstrates the old principle that ‘everybody is equal before the law’ but also strengthens public confidence that all tigers will be hunted.”
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