The life imprisonment sentence (on charges of bribery) against Zhou Yongkang, the former Chinese security czar, has sent shockwaves across the Chinese political system and beyond. It marks the most dramatic case of political demise since the immediate aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen protests, which led to the downfall of Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang, a reformist leader who opposed the brutal suppression of student activists.
Zhou wasn’t only a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest decision-making body in the country, but also formerly in charge of one of the best-funded and most Orwellian institutions in China, the Ministry of Public Security. Symbolically, his downfall reflects the astounding capacity of Chinese state institutions to purge even the most powerful insiders.
It also reflects the determination of the current leadership, under President Xi Jinping, to cleanse state institutions and contain explosive levels of corruption amid an era of unprecedented prosperity. The message is clear: No one is immune from the tentacles of the China’s ruling party.
Thinly veiled political purge
Xi’s high-minded good governance initiative, however, is also seen as a thinly veiled political purge, which may undermine the internal coherence of the Chinese bureaucracy. Among autocratic regimes, political purges of top leaders, especially of Zhou’s magnitude, are more indicative of systemic weakness rather than accountability and dynamism. Beijing is sensing trouble like never before.
Absent democratic elections, and the demise of communist ideology after the end of the Cold War, the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy has been anchored by robust economic growth and top-down accountability. But as China’s era of easy growth comes to an end, with export markets drying up and infrastructure development reaching a saturation point, popular discontent with corruption has reached new heights.
On paper, Zhou’s main pitfall was his involvement in a series of large-scale corruption schemes. China’s official news agency, Xinhua, reported that the former security czar has been found guilty of accepting bribes worth $117,750 from a former oil executive, Jiang Jiemin, who is also under investigation.
Similar to how ancient Chinese emperors dealt with their aristocratic rivals, the Xi Jinping administration is purging Zhou’s entire family and network of friends.
Zhou was also found guilty by a court in Tianjin of using his official power for soliciting business favours for his family and friends. Zhou’s wife, Jia Xiaoye, as well as his son Bin, are also accused of receiving up to $21m in bribes. Similar to how ancient Chinese emperors dealt with their aristocratic rivals, the Xi Jinping administration is purging Zhou’s entire family and network of friends.
But for those who are familiar with the inner working of China’s political system, Zhou’s alleged involvement in corruption scandals should come as no surprise, since the country’s boom years have gone hand in hand with an explosion in incestuous collaboration among party officials (who control licensing, have privileged access to credit, and oversee privatisation schemes) and well-connected businessmen, many of whom, since the Jiang Zemin administration, have also become party members.
Reminiscent of Stalinist-style judicial persecution, Zhou, prior to his sentencing, was first humiliated and dehumanised before the Chinese public, publicly lambasted by the state-controlled media as a traitor, philanderer, and thief. None of the fallen prominent officials in post-Mao era, from Premier Zhao Ziyang to General Secretary Hu Yaobang, faced similar campaign of public disgrace as Zhou.
Zhou’s greatest pitfall, however, was his reported support for the former party chief of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, who was a highly charismatic politician that sought to use Maoist populism to discredit capitalists in the regime and vie for Xi’s position.
Eager to appease the Chinese populace, but unwilling to liberalise the political system, Xi has embarked on sweeping anti-corruption crackdown against “flies” (low-level officials) and “tigers” (senior officials). Under Xi’s anti-corruption initiative, up to 270,000 officials have been punished, with some sentenced to death. A majority of them have been “flies”, but there have also been senior officials such as Zhou and Bo as well as up to 14 military generals.
Xi Jinping is a curious mix of Communist China’s two most consequential leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. On one hand, Xi has tried to resurrect the spirit of austerity and ideological purity of the Maoist era, reinstituting archaic practices like self-criticism sessions among officials. He has also banned the purchase of a whole host of luxury products and revoked certain privileges for government officials.
At the same time, Xi has also tried to present himself as another Deng Xiaoping, the legendary pragmatic leader, who oversaw the opening of China to economic globalisation. During Deng’s latest birthday celebrations, Xinhua declared: “To reignite a nation, Xi carries Deng’s torch.”
While Deng liberated China from the shackles of Maoist command-economy, Xi in turn is aiming to take China through its second economic revolution towards a knowledge- and consumer-based economy.
The Chinese leader seems to believe that he is the perfect synthesis of the best aspects of Mao’s and Deng’s leadership styles – a charismatic and capable leader willing to take on entrenched interests. No wonder then, unlike any Chinese leader in modern history, Xi has staked his legacy on fighting endemic corruption, which is chipping away at the very foundations of the country’s single-party political system.
“In my struggle against corruption, I don’t care about life or death, or ruining my reputation,” Xi Jinping reportedly said at a closed-door session of China’s top leaders in mid-2014.
The dramatic declaration came on the heels of reported pushback by other senior leaders, who have warned about the consequences of a cascading political purge. There are already speculations that Xi may be seeking a perpetual stay in power to oversee high-stakes reforms. But fear of persecution and purge may lead to a slowdown in bureaucracy, as officials avoid any risky decision, if not outright political backlash from other powerful factions.
Above all, however, Xi’s sweeping crackdown on corruption has shattered the image of a unified and coherent Chinese leadership, evincing the depth of vulnerability of a system whereby a one-party state is overseeing the world’s greatest capitalist experiment.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of ‘Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific’.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.