Argument

Lord of the Flies

China's president moves closer to bagging his biggest trophy.

President Xi Jinping has notched a first in recent Chinese Communist Party history by investigating a former member of China's top ruling body for corruption and abuse of power. Zhou Yongkang, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member in charge of internal security from 2007 to 2012, has been placed under house arrest, and is helping authorities investigate "economic crimes" and other unspecified disciplinary infractions, according to three party sources in Beijing that include a senior cadre with access to classified documents and a close aide to the son of a high-ranking official.

It is not certain whether Zhou, whose power once rivaled that of China's president,will ever be publicly prosecuted under criminal law. Yet even if Zhou is only disciplined by the party, not the state -- meaning he will likely lose his freedom of movement for the rest of his life -- it will be momentous. Xi will have broken the tradition that PSC members, regardless of the crimes they may have committed, are untouchable. Zhou might be spared the humiliation of appearing in court, but Xi will still be seen as a master graft-buster who made good on his January 2013 pledge that both "tigers and flies" -- corrupt officials of high and low rank -- will be punished.

Zhou's true sin may have been placing a bet on the wrong horse. Veteran Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan said that Zhou was merely a loser in the power struggle inside Zhongnanhai, Beijing's government seat. The three party sources say that Zhou -- who at the height of his power controlled the police, state security, and judicial apparatuses -- supported ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai. (Arrested in 2012 and convicted in September 2013, Bo is serving a life sentence for bribery, corruption, and abuse of power.)

The sources said Zhou wanted Bo, a former party secretary of the western Chinese metropolis of Chongqing, to be inducted into the PSC at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012. With his charisma and popularity among the sons and daughters of party aristocracy - colloquially known as "princelings" -- Bo would present a challenge to the authority of Xi, who ascended to the presidency that November. By going after Bo's patron, Xi is thus killing several birds with one stone. Xi wants to show his opponents -- including remaining Bo supporters in the party and army -- that he has the wherewithal to take down even a former PSC member.

Zhou is also a powerful member of the party's Petroleum Faction, which comprises senior cadres who have toiled in the influential and labyrinthine oil-and-gas sector. Xi appears to be using Zhou's case to tame that faction, which includes three centrally-controlled behemoth state-owned enterprises (SOEs): China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), Sinopec, and China National Offshore Oil Corporation. In the course of investigating Zhou, the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China's highest-ranked anti-graft body, has investigated several senior executives who are his former protégés, including Jiang Jiemin, a former chairman of CNPC, as well as that company's former vice-president, Wang Yongchun, and deputy general manager, Li Hualin.

Zhou's reckoning will likely add to Xi's already formidable clout. Thirteen months after becoming party chief, Xi has successfully consolidated his power over the army, the party-state, and the police. And by taking the helm of the recently-established Leading Group on the Comprehensive Deepening of Reform, an organization tasked with overseeing reform, Xi is probably wresting control of the economy away from Premier Li Keqiang. That Xi and not Li was in charge of drafting the economic blueprint announced at the Third Plenum, a key party meeting in November, demonstrated that Li has to defer to his boss on major policy issues.

There is no indication that after bringing down Zhou, Xi will start probing similarly high-placed cadres, their spouses, or their offspring. The promulgation of a "sunshine law" that would oblige top cadres to disclose their assets has been postponed indefinitely. And The New York Times, which publicized the untoward business dealings of former Premier Wen Jiabao's relatives, and Bloomberg, which uncovered the fortunes held by top Chinese families, including Xi's, have faced difficulties securing visas for their China-focused journalists.

Will Xi use the tremendous powers he has arrogated to bolster the legitimacy of the party or himself? While nabbing more "tigers" could help the party win support among the populace, anti-graft operations must be seen as legally waged. Does Zhou's demise represent a step forward in the party's determination and ability to crack down on graft, or is it simply a result of the usual Machiavellian power play within elite party circles? The onus is on Xi to show China, and the world, that he favors rule of law over rule of man. 

DANIEL VELEZ/AFP/Getty Images

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