Argument

The Purge

After the fall of Bo Xilai, will the much more powerful Zhou Yongkang survive?

The five-day trial of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power ended on August 26 with a command performance from the man who, with his extremely public downfall in early 2012, tore a hole in the Communist Party's façade of unity. Despite Bo's virtuoso showing, where he managed to portray himself as competent and sympathetic, the ink has mostly dried on his fate. The court will announce the verdict any day now, according to the state-run broadcaster China Central Television, and Bo is almost certain to be found guilty. But he's not the only one brought low. Many of his supporters in the Communist Party and the military are thought to have been purged. The biggest remaining question of the Bo affair is what will happen to Zhou Yongkang, the feared former security chief who former New York Times Beijing correspondent Nicholas Kristof once described as "a man who brightens any room by leaving it." Now, the net may be closing in on him: On Sunday, the Communist Party announced an investigation into Jiang Jiemin, a senior official in charge of state-owned companies and a protégé of Zhou's, in a move many see as further encroaching on Zhou himself. Bo's public downfall was shocking; Zhou's would be unprecedented.

Zhou oversaw China's security forces and law enforcement institutions from 2007 to 2012, and was widely reported to have been the only top Chinese official to argue against removing Bo from the elite decision-making body, the Politburo. The organization Zhou ran, the Central Politics and Law Commission, might have asked Bo to cover up the defection of his former police chief Wang Lijun, according to The New York Times. Zhou became increasingly influential as ethnic riots broke out in Tibet in 2008, and in the restive region of Xinjiang in 2009. Beijing was convinced of the importance of maintaining social stability. As the budget on domestic security kept growing -- in 2012 it reached $111 billion, nearly $5 billion higher than the entire official military budget --- so did Zhou's power.

Zhou, who oversaw China's immense security state, was like a Chinese Dick Cheney; the power behind the throne, said a Western academic familiar with the matter. He also said that former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, a man known for his extensive surveillance network, "might have had" Zhou's reach. Officially, Zhou was the least powerful of the nine-member Standing Committee, the elite subgroup within the Politburo. But when I spoke with this academic in 2010, Zhou was probably the third most powerful man in China, behind President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, exponentially more influential than Bo.

The 73-year-old Zhou reportedly liked to show his power by feats of physical strength. "When he'd go places for investigation, he'd do like 50 or 100 push-ups" in front of others, said a Chinese academic who lives overseas and is familiar with elite politics. In August 2007, 2 months before he ascended to the Standing Committee, Zhou visited a police station in south China's Yunnan province. He surprised onlookers by doing "10 sit-ups in one breath," after which everyone "spontaneously burst into applause," according to China News Service, a state-run news agency.  

Despite these showy feats, Zhou is known to be extremely secretive, even by the opaque standards of a top Chinese politician. Rumors have long swirled around Zhou and his family, including his son Zhou Bin, now rumored to be under investigation, according to a source familiar with the matter, and his wife, thought to have died under mysterious circumstances, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Little is known about Zhou, his relationship with Bo Xilai, and how that may have led to his apparent sidelining after Bo's very public fall from grace in early 2012. But, clearly, he is not loved in China. In May 2012, a group of Communist Party veterans published a bold open letter calling for the removal of Zhou for having supported Bo. In February, human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang found his accounts on three Chinese microblogging sites suspended after posting that Zhou "wrecked the country and ruined the people" by mismanaging China's security apparatus.   

Like other officials around his age, Zhou stepped down from the Standing Committee in November 2012 -- top Chinese politicians have a surprisingly strict retirement policy. The next Standing Committee downgraded Zhou's position to the regular Politburo. Kerry Brown, a China specialist at the University of Sydney, called the move a "very big rebuke to Zhou." Since then, Zhou has mostly stayed out of sight, leading to reports from overseas Chinese news websites, which aren't always credible, that he is under investigation.  On Aug. 30, The South China Morning Post, a Hong-Kong based English newspaper with a better track record on elite politics than its peers, reported that top Party leaders have agreed to investigate Zhou for corruption. "There is a 50 percent chance that Zhou is in trouble, and that's a pretty big chance," says a person familiar with the matter.

It's impossible to predict the future; in the opaque world of Chinese politics, even the present is hazy. Thus, it's instructive to look into the past, at the case of Kang Sheng, Mao Zedong's urbane and cruel spymaster, and probably the last security chief to accrue as much power as Zhou. While Chinese politics during Mao's era were far more vicious, and Kang correspondingly far more feared than Zhou, the system of rules Kang played by during the anarchic decade-long Cultural Revolution still influence Chinese political infighting today. And Kang won. Communism, a social movement known for its tendency to consume its children, has few notable marquee survivors. China's survivor wasn't Mao Zedong -- when he died in November 1976, after a decade presiding over the Cultural Revolution, he could probably already feel the country slipping away from his grasp. Rather it was Kang, who died in 1975 of cancer, with his hands still gripping the levers of state security.

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.  

LIU JIN AFP

Argument

Bait and Switch

Obama’s “limited” strikes are just the prelude to massive intervention in the Middle East. And Congress shouldn’t fall for it.

President Barack Obama's turnaround on Syria comes as a surprise, given his recent shows of disdain for Congress. Only a couple of months ago, Edward Snowden's revelations forced Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to admit that he lied to the Senate Intelligence Committee -- a felony punishable by five years in prison. But the confession of a crime didn't prompt the president to replace Clapper with a fresh face who might credibly join with Congress in cleaning up the NSA scandal.

Obama's next unilateralist display came in response to the military takeover in Egypt. The Foreign Assistance Act bars aid to "any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup." But even after Egyptian soldiers mowed down protesters, the White House insisted that it "is not in the best interests of the United States" to determine "whether or not a coup occurred." Despite protests from Capitol Hill, there is no sign that the president will heed the plain meaning of the statutory command.

As the drama shifted to Syria, presidential policy shifted in the opposite direction. This time, the United States would not be financing Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as he killed protesters in the street, but would be bombing Bashar al-Assad for gassing civilians. With Secretary of State John Kerry leading the charge, the world was bracing itself for news of the first airstrikes when Obama made his remarkable turn to Congress.

In a moment full of historical irony, Prime Minister David Cameron's defeat in the House of Commons was a precipitating cause of the president's agonizing reappraisal. For almost a thousand years, the British constitution excluded Parliament from declarations of war -- the king claiming this power as his "royal prerogative." Given George III's war against his rebellious colonists, this made it imperative for America's Founding Fathers to establish that their new president would play a very different role -- and that it would be up to Congress to make the ultimate decisions on war and peace.

Yet two centuries onward, it was the British Parliament that taught the imperial presidency a lesson. It was only in 2003 that Tony Blair decided that his adventure with George W. Bush required something more than a royal decree. To enhance his democratic legitimacy, he requested the formal approval of Parliament -- which was readily forthcoming since his party was in firm control of the House. But this time around, Cameron was at the head of a shaky Tory-Liberal coalition, which proved incapable of delivering the votes.

This put President Obama's push for a military response in Syria in the unlikely situation of falling far short of Bush-era benchmarks. Whatever the Iraq War's deficiencies under international law, Bush and Blair did manage to organize a formidable "coalition of the willing." Whatever lies Bush told the public about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, he did at least gain the consent of Congress. But once Britain dropped out, it was clear that Obama's international coalition was going to be far less substantial than the one that rallied behind Bush. And if Obama refused to gain congressional consent, he would have faced withering attack from both the left and right if his unilateral intervention misfired.

Obama showed a healthy instinct for political self-preservation in making his last-minute turnaround. But his act will have larger consequences than he intended. Perhaps he might have gained a quick-if-narrow victory if he had proposed a resolution to Congress that strictly limited his use of force to the narrow surgical strike that is his purported objective.

But in fact, his formal proposal is a massive bait-and-switch operation. It authorizes the president to use "the Armed Forces of the United States," including boots on the ground, and to employ military force "within, to or from Syria." What is more, the president can act to deter the "use or proliferation" of "chemical or other weapons of mass destruction" and intervene to "protect the United States and its allies and partners against the threat posed by such weapons." This is nothing less than an open-ended endorsement of military intervention in the Middle East and beyond.

Such a remarkable initiative can't help but provoke a fundamental reexamination of basic premises -- something sorely needed at a time when administration policy veers wildly from crude realpolitik in Egypt to high moralism in Syria. What is more, there is no chance that a congressional majority will join John McCain and Lindsey Graham in endorsing Obama's astonishing carte blanche. Indeed, Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Gerald Connolly (D-VA) are already drafting a revised resolution that would only authorize the limited mission Obama has described in his public announcements.

Most importantly, they are  insisting on a strict time limit on all uses of force, as was done in authorizing President Ronald Reagan's invasion of Lebanon in 1983. Given the large gap between their restrictive approach and Obama's open-ended authorization, however, last-minute bargaining may fail to generate a compromise that will carry a majority in both houses.

In either event, the upcoming debate will signal the beginning of the end of the 9/11 era. Future presidents will be put on notice that the American people will no longer support wide-ranging military interventions in the Islamic world.

And a good thing too. Although some may worry about Obama's short-term loss of stature, the larger concern should be America's long-term loss of credibility -- both morally, as a result of its brutal conduct of the war on terror, and strategically, as its military interventions in Iraq and elsewhere generate an even more vicious struggle for power in the Middle East. Rather than doubling down on this failed policy, the coming congressional debate ought to open up space for a fundamental reassessment.

Paradoxically, this may liberate Obama to engage in his more constructive diplomatic initiatives. His championship of a European Free Trade Agreement is far more likely to generate lasting results than Secretary Kerry's desperate effort to win an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Obama's turn to Asia should be complemented by a turn to Latin America, whose fundamental problems are systematically ignored by a White House continually diverted by the latest crisis from the Middle East.

But all this is for the future. The crucial point to recognize is that something special is happening. A dispute with a minor-league despot is provoking a major turning point in American foreign policy. This is a moment for Congress to confront its responsibilities with high seriousness.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images