Xi's Purge: Anticorruption or Loyalty-Based? Is It Finished Yet?

Thursday, Beijing disclosed the trial, plea, and sentencing of Zhou Yongkang, once the country’s security czar and now the highest official to be prosecuted since Maoist times.

The reviled Zhou received a life term for taking bribes, disclosing state secrets, and abusing power. He was also deprived of political rights for life and forfeited assets.

Zhou, according to state media, admitted his crimes and will not appeal. “The basic facts are clear,” he said according to the official Xinhua News Agency. “I plead guilty and repent my wrongdoing.”

“Zhou’s trial was a symbol of the CPC’s commitment to the rule of law,” Xinhua reported.

No one should believe Xinhua on the Communist Party’s commitment. “Zhou’s trial was about loyalty to Xi and control,” Nottingham University’s Steve Tsang told the Financial Times, referring to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. “Justice has got nothing to do with it. Justice is incidental.”

Many now believe that, with Zhou’s sentencing, Xi’s “anticorruption” campaign will enter a new phase, focusing more on institutional restraints on graft instead of taking down more “tigers,” high officials in Communist Party parlance. “The task has changed,” said the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection in a statement on its website. Prominent corrupt officials are mere “gusts of wind.”

Many have reported that the biggest tigers, former leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, have reined in Xi’s once-relentless campaign. For instance, Deng Yuwen, a former editor of Study Times, the Central Party School journal, believes Xi reached a deal on Zhou Yongkang with Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, former Vice President Zeng Qinghong, and former premiers Li Peng and Wen Jiabao to not go after them or their children. “Many people want to know if other ‘big tigers’ or ‘old tigers’ will be ensnared,” Deng wrote in July in Ta Kung Pao, a Chinese-language Hong Kong newspaper. “The possibility of this happening in the rest of the first five-year term is close to zero.”

It would make sense for Xi to back off, especially because his efforts could tear the country’s ruling organization apart. On a general level, Xi is “deconstructing” the webs of relationships that keep the party in power, explains Lynette Ong, a political scientist at the University of Toronto. “In an authoritarian system like China’s, the system’s foundational stability comes not from popularly elected officials but from patronage networks,” Ong writes. “Autocrats garner support by promising to share spoils with their followers, a practice that holds the political insiders together. Undermining this system is thus highly disruptive to the party’s grip on power.”

Moreover, Xi is forcing his opponents to fight back hard to protect themselves, their patronage networks, and their families. So far, he has managed with his bold tactics to unite his opponents, a dangerous situation for him, and so it would appear that this would be a particularly appropriate time for Xi to beat a retreat.

Nonetheless, Deng Yuwen’s prediction that Xi’s purge was coming to an end looks wrong. It now appears that former Vice President Zeng, who was allied with Jiang and was reportedly instrumental in Xi’s rise to power, is under investigation. Zeng, by many accounts, arranged Xi’s ascent in November 2012. Xi, in short, could be turning on his former backers, something his hero, Mao Zedong, often did before the tumultuous decade-long Cultural Revolution.

Reports indicate Zeng is being held in Tianjin, the seaport adjacent to Beijing. Tianjin is also home to the people’s court that conducted the secret trial of Zhou Yongkang.

So prepare for another gust in China, perhaps soon. 

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