Born in 1898, Kang studied abroad in Russia in the 1920s and brought back a sophisticated understanding of Soviet espionage. He ingratiated himself with Mao when the future chairman was a rebel leader in Yan'an in the late 1930s, facilitating Mao's marriage to his fourth and final wife Jiang Qing. (The information regarding Kang comes from The Claws of the Dragon, a 1992 biography written by Roger T. Uren, a former diplomat who wrote under the penname John Byron, and the journalist Robert Peck, who in the 1980s received a set of secret Party documents pertaining to Kang.)
Kang's standing in the party rose and fell over the next three decades, until the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, when he was on the ascendant. "Kang never lost sight of one essential lesson from his Soviet experience: that by inventing a world full of spies and enemy agents, it was possible to acquire enormous influence," the authors wrote. An excellent judge of Mao's moods, Kang solidified power by positioning his enemies in the path of Mao's rage or paranoia, and by knowing when to cut ties with someone who had fallen out of favor. One of Kang's key allies was Lin Biao, a decorated Chinese general appointed as Mao's successor. As soon as he sensed that Mao had grown wary of Lin, Kang immediately distanced himself from the erstwhile crown prince.
Has Zhou learned these lessons and successfully distanced himself from Bo? Or is he implicated and caught up by Bo's downfall? Did Zhou cast his lot in with Bo, and, as some of the more outlandish rumors say, plan a coup? That information may never surface. In 1972, Lin allegedly tried to assassinate Mao; after the plot failed, he fled to the Soviet Union, but his plane crashed on the way, leaving no survivors. That's the official version, anyway -- whether the actual events differed in reality remains unknown, even to this day.
There is no record of Kang meeting Zhou, but Kang was instrumental in the downfall of Bo's father Bo Yibo, then a top party official. In 1966, he presented Mao with a newspaper that featured an "anti-communist" declaration Bo had signed decades earlier, according to the journalists Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang in their book about the Bo Xilai affair, A Death in the Lucky Hotel. Kang was a master at building cases against his opponents, and of surgically purging their allies -- a situation that may be befalling Zhou.
More than half a dozen of Zhou's allies, including a deputy party chief of Sichuan, the province Zhou formerly ran, are known to be under investigation. Over the last week, Beijing has announced it is investigating four senior officials at China National Petroleum, the oil behemoth Zhou ran in the 1990s, for graft. One of the men, Li Hualin, formerly served as Zhou's secretary. "The aim of this operation is to separate Zhou Yongkang from the current political layout," political commentator Li Weidong told The Washington Post.
But the excesses of Kang, who was partially responsible for the torture and murder of several high-ranking officials in the 1960s and 1970s, like Chinese President Liu Shaoqi, may help Zhou. There is now an unofficial ban on the trial or arrest of current or former Standing Committee members. If he is indeed being investigated, Zhou might be placed under house arrest, like former Premier Zhao Ziyang, or he might quietly fade away.
As for Kang, his reputation suffered greatly after his death. Hu Yaobang, who served as a reformist Chinese premier in the mid-1980s, censured Kang in a 1978 speech, beginning the process of removing him from the canon of respected former leaders. "Hu's long harangue against Kang in itself revealed that Kang's techniques had penetrated to the very marrow of Chinese politics," Kang's biographers write; Hu was exaggerating some of the details and "fantasizing about his crimes." By late 1980, Kang had been posthumously expelled from the Communist Party.
And yet, Kang's methods live on. In July, The Study Times, an influential Communist Party newspaper, published an article exhorting readers to study those speeches Hu made in "unmasking" Kang Sheng -- which could be interpreted as an attack on Zhou, given the similarities between the two men.
But Kang got the last laugh. "The final proof of Kang's cunning is that he outlived virtually all of his victims," the authors of his biography wrote. After his death, The People's Daily, the newspaper that functions as a mouthpiece of the Communist Party, published a photo of Kang on its front page with a long banner headline, ending with the phrase "Comrade Kang Sheng is immortal!" Whatever happens to Zhou, he is unlikely to receive the same treatment.