Will Zhou Yongkang be Xi’s last ‘tiger’?

Former security boss handed life sentence at secret trial

Vincent Kolo, chinaworker.info

Xi Jinping finally got his man, but not the way he would have chosen. Zhou Yongkang is the 72-year-old former chief of China’s internal security behemoth. Not only was he tried in secret, overturning an earlier official statement that the trial would be ‘open’, but the trial and guilty verdict were not announced for three weeks.

Zhou was sentenced to life imprisonment for bribery, abuse of power and leaking state secrets at his trial in Tianjin on 22 May, with the news reported first on 11 June. A white-haired and frail looking Zhou, formerly one of the most feared and powerful officials in China’s one-party dictatorship (CCP), was shown in television footage making a short admission of guilt and saying that he would not appeal.

These proceedings mark a radical departure from the treatment of Zhou’s ally, the princeling politician Bo Xilai, whose trial in 2013 was semi-open with a massive media focus. This time the regime chose to play down the affair, despite Zhou being the most senior ‘tiger’ (i.e. senior official) netted in Xi’s anti-corruption drive. The crackdown on graft is in fact an internal power struggle and regime shake-up with much more at stake than curbing rampant official corruption. Measured by its effectiveness in limiting corruption the campaign has not succeeded and cannot succeed. According to Berlin-based Transparency International, China fell 20 places in the global corruption rankings last year – from 80 to 100 out of 175 countries. An internal CCP report from 2014 found that almost one in three officials were involved in corruption, which if anything is an underestimate. To really tackle corruption would require the arrest of millions in other words, something that Xi has no intention of doing.

The almost low-key manner in which the trial of Zhou was handled – it was not even the top story on national TV news – has generated a lot of speculation about where Xi Jinping will go from here. Is his drive to weaken the traditionally powerful factions and power blocs within the CCP heirarchy running into greater resistance and does this suggest that a slowdown or pause in the ‘tiger hunt’ is on the cards? Or is it that the alarming deterioration of the economy – with foreign trade slumping and financial stresses rising in recent months – is now forcing Xi and his allies to shift focus and seek to repair the shaken ‘stability’ within the party-state apparatus? All are feasible scenarios.

Plan B

According to Steve Tsang, an expert on Chinese politics from the University of Nottingham, the trial showed that many observers may have overestimated the degree to which Xi is in control: “He is still powerful, he is still confident – but not as much as we were all giving him credit for.” Tsang said the secret trial was Xi’s “Plan B” and that he would have much preferred a more public demolition of Zhou Yongkang to boost his own popularity, and to maximise the deterrent effect on other potential opponents inside the CCP.

The official reason for this secrecy is that some of the charges against Zhou concerned state secrets. But many commentators had expected the trial to be held in two parts, one semi-open (to handpicked Chinese media only) and the other behind closed doors. The regime seems to have had second thoughts however, especially after its experience with Bo Xilai’s trial, which veered badly off script. The former Chongqing party boss, who is a more popular but less powerful figure than Zhou, retracted his confession in court and conducted a spirited defence. This performance won Bo a lot of support among the general public while of course – always with such trials in China – the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

Based on media reports inside and outside China, Zhou was spectacularly corrupt, but this was not the main reason for his downfall. Zhou together with Bo and several other figures including Ling Jihua, the former aide to China’s ex-president Hu Jintao, and the top general Xu Caihou, who died in March, collectively dubbed “the new Gang of Four” by Chinese media, attempted to manoeuvre against Xi’s succession in the run up to the CCP’s 18th Congress in 2012. Furthermore, as a former member of the elite Politburo Standing Committee, Zhou represents a very big ‘tiger’ – and therefore his incarceration serves as a warning that nobody is beyond the reach of Xi’s crackdown.

This anti-corruption drive, which is the most far-reaching in the history of the CCP and has brought down at least 100 officials of vice-ministerial rank or higher, along with more than 400,000 ‘flies’ (low-ranking officials), has been used to pursue Xi’s opponents and potential opponents inside the party-state machinery and project his own status as China’s new ‘strong man’. There are parallels with how Vladimir Putin launched a ‘war against the oligarchs’ more than ten years ago to cement his control and to re-centralise power in the Russian state. Xi is known to be an admirer of Putin.

Nevertheless, it seems that for a combination of reasons Xi has taken a step back, at least for the time being. The case against Zhou Yongkang has taken two years. Many commentators are surprised that he did not suffer a more public ‘crucifixion’ and that he received a relatively lenient life sentence rather than a death sentence or suspended death sentence as was widely tipped. A deal has evidently been struck to obtain Zhou’s admission of guilt, something that is common in high profile corruption cases. The question is at what price the regime achieved this?

Earlier this year, state media accused Zhou of being a “traitor” and China’s highest judicial organ, the Supreme People’s Court, accused him of engaging in “unauthorised political activity” in cahoots with Bo Xilai. This, and a Politburo statement that for the first time publicly named several internal CCP factions, in connection with this case, signalled a radical departure from the past with Xi and his graft busters ‘politicising’ the anti-corruption struggle and openly admitting that a factional power struggle exists within the ostensibly “unified” CCP. None of these allegations (factionalism, a conspiracy with Bo Xilai against Xi Jinping) appeared on the charge sheet at the Tianjin trial however. The purpose of these public allegations appears to have been to pressurise Zhou into cutting a deal in order to save his own life and perhaps limit the scale of retribution against his family members (many of whom are also in detention).

As in previous cases, the scale of Zhou’s economic crimes was downsized at the trial. This is done to mislead the public about the true scale of official looting. It shows the degree of official nervousness that the anti-corruption campaign, while pivotal to Xi’s plans for a shake-up of the balance of power, also threatens to undermine the regime by publicly exposing the shocking crimes of its leaders. Xinhua has previously reported that Zhou, working with his sidekicks the former oil boss Jiang Jiemen and the former deputy party boss of Sichuan province Li Chuncheng, both also indicted for corruption, enriched his relatives and cronies to the tune of US$345 million. Yet at his trial Zhou was convicted of taking bribes of just 731,000 yuan (US$118,000).

On a lighter note, one of the key witnesses against Zhou was his former confidante and mystic, the billionaire Cao Yongzheng, also known as the ‘Xinjiang sage’. Cao told the court that Zhou had given him six classified documents, of which five were marked top secret. This cameo role highlights a wider phenomenon – as corruption has exploded and the gulf between a wealthy elite and a still poor majority has widened, China’s top officials have increasingly turned to soothsayers and mystics for guidance. “Usually the more senior an official is, the more superstitious he will be,” said Hu Xingdou, an economist at Beijing University of Technology. The former head of the railway ministry, Liu Zhijun, who is also serving a life sentence, was known to consult feng shui masters about which dates were the most auspicious for commencing construction work on new rail projects. Cao Yongzheng was arrested last year while trying to escape to Taiwan – something he evidently failed to foresee!

Zhou Yongkang sentenced to life in prison.
Zhou Yongkang sentenced to life in prison.


The circumstances surrounding Zhou’s trial raise questions about Xi’s next moves. It may be that the economic crisis and rising tensions at the top are forcing Xi to dial down at least on the pace and scale of the purge. The cracks opening up within the ruling elite were highlighted in a public statement made last week by the daughter of the late Chen Yun, a CCP giant who founded the anti-corruption agency (CCDI) in the 1970s. Chen Weili gave her support to Xi’s campaign saying the struggle against corruption was necessary. “The party rule will end otherwise,” she said according to the South China Morning Post. That Xi feels the need to enlist public backing from fellow princelings such as Chen suggests that the campaign is encountering strong headwinds.

There has been speculation that several high profile former leaders could be the next targets of the purge. These include former Premier Wen Jiabao (whose family wealth makes Zhou Yongkang’s look trifling), former Premier Li Peng (the “Butcher of Beijing”) and his offspring, and even ex-president Jiang Zemin, who was the mentor of both Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai, and heads the most powerful of CCP factions, the Shanghai Gang. To go after even some of these targets would be tantamount to something close to ‘civil war’ within the ruling elite. Only time will tell, but the outcome of the Zhou Yongkang case suggests a cooling off is more likely at least in the short-term. More likely immediate targets of the purge are Ling Jihua, the former aide to Hu Jintao, and retired top general Guo Boxiong. But there are reports that Ling has gone mad in prison. Guo, who is not yet formally under investigation although this is expected, is said to be gravely ill from cancer. Therefore neither Ling nor Guo may be able to stand trial and their circumstances may increase the pressure upon Xi and his allies to use the wrapping up of the case against Zhou Yongkang as a timely moment to begin winding down.

“You do need some way of striking the balance,” says Andrew Wedeman, a US professor whose research focuses on corruption in China. “You can’t keep indicting more and more tigers without really calling into question the integrity of the party as a whole. There is a need at some point to scale things back,” he told the New York Times (11 June 2015).


For Xi the ultimate aim of this campaign is to break up the ‘rule by elders’ that plagued his predecessor Hu Jintao and led to creeping paralysis at the centre, with factional bosses – commonly with a regional power base – acting akin to the warlords of the past. Through the anti-corruption campaign as well as an increasingly nationalist tone in foreign policy (as shown in the South China Sea conflict and other disputes) Xi is trying to cement a more personalised form of dictatorship. In so doing he is abandoning the ‘collective dictatorship’ model devised by Deng Xiaoping as a way to introduce some ‘checks and balances’ into an authoritarian system. Deng’s aim was to avoid a re-run of the tumultuous final years of Mao Zedong’s rule. Clearly, therefore, Xi’s power grab, while predicated on the need for extreme measures to save the regime from collapse or revolution, also entails big risks that could blow back against its author.

These dangers were highlighted in a widely debated op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (6 March 2015) by the veteran American China watcher David Shambaugh. He reversed his earlier more upbeat assessment of the Chinese dictatorship’s prospects and declared that Xi Jinping’s “despotism is severely stressing China’s system and society – and bringing it closer to a breaking point.” Shambaugh, a former favourite of Beijing, has been roundly denounced by the Chinese media for predicting, “The endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun, I believe, and it has progressed further than many think.”

The CCP regime finds itself in unchartered territory. Pressure is mounting as a result of the sharp economic slowdown, increasing regional and global conflicts, and growing unrest at the base of society as shown in an upturn in workers’ strikes and other forms of mass protest. These pressures are the origin of the top-level power struggle ‘with anti-corruption characteristics’ that has raged for the past 2 to 3 years. While capitalist commentators offer no solutions other than to propose top-down ‘political reform’ which CCP leaders fear would only open the gates to revolution, the scenario sketched out by Shambaugh is far from fanciful. We are witnessing the onset of a severe crisis in China, which only the working class equipped with a socialist and democratic alternative can resolve.