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Xi Jinping, China's Strongman in the Making?

On Tuesday, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported that Jiang Jiemin was removed from his post as head of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission.

The report follows Sunday’s announcement that the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection was investigating Jiang for “serious disciplinary violations,” Beijing’s code for graft. The corruption probe is thought to be the first initiated by Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, against a ministerial-level official.

Xi inherited investigations of various officials, especially Zhou Yongkang, the former internal security czar. Zhou, Jiang, and virtually all other recent high-level targets either have or had some connection with China National Petroleum Corporation, China’s largest oil company, raising speculation that Xi is conducting a purge of the “Petroleum Faction.” Zhou, for instance, once was head of CNPC, as the oil giant is known.

In November, Zhou stepped down from the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in China. The investigation of this intensely disliked figure breaks an unwritten rule, honored since the end of the Cultural Revolution and the trial of the Gang of Four, that no Standing Committee member can be held accountable for misdeeds.

Most analysts believe these developments show Xi is boldly consolidating power. He became China’s top leader in November when the party named him general secretary. Since then, he has been eliminating rivals through prosecution and marginalizing dissenting views with increasingly repressive tactics and various Maoist and Marxist campaigns.

Even if this view is correct, it also appears that the unprecedented prosecution of Zhou is upending the political system and perhaps ending the period of stability that permitted China to recover after Mao Zedong’s disastrous Cultural Revolution.

In fact, the rule against prosecution of Standing Committee members was an important element in restoring calm after Mao’s zany, decade-long campaign. The theory was that if leaders knew they would not be hunted down, as they were in the Cultural Revolution, they would be willing to withdraw gracefully after losing political struggles. In other words, Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s crafty successor, reduced the incentive for political figures to fight to the end and tear the Communist Party apart.

Xi Jinping, however, is reversing the process and upping the stakes, something evident in the tribulations of Bo Xilai. Once China’s most openly ambitious politician, Bo will surely be found guilty of various crimes after his high-profile show trial, which concluded at the end of last month, and sentenced to a long term, perhaps 15 years. The widespread use of criminal penalties, evident in the probe of Zhou and other Petroleum Faction figures, is a sign that China is returning to a period that many thought was long past. Xi, a strongman in the making, appears capable of resurrecting the Communist Party’s ugly history.

Zhou is thought to have amassed a fortune when he was CNPC’s chief, and the other figures under investigation have undoubtedly enriched themselves. Yet they are not being prosecuted for graft by independent prosecutors. They have, from all appearances, been targeted by Xi in a show of political force. The story is that China’s new supremo is willing to break conventions in his quest to bolster his personal political position—and possibly trigger a long descent into turmoil.

Last year, then Premier Wen Jiabao warned that China could descend into another Cultural Revolution. Observers at the time thought he was being melodramatic. Maybe he wasn’t.

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