Tea Leaf Nation

Say It Ain't So, Zhou

China reacts to the downfall of its once-powerful security czar.

It was an exchange perfectly tailored for modern Chinese politics: alternately unscripted and cagey, chummy but laced with a hint of menace. At a Beijing press conference following a Chinese Communist Party meeting in early March, a reporter for Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post had just asked party spokesman Lu Xinhua whether foreign reports about the imminent downfall of Zhou Yongkang -- once the country's feared security chief, Politburo Standing Committee member, and part-time oil baron, whose investigation for corruption was only officially announced July 29 -- were true. Lu gave a nervous laugh.

"In fact, I'm like you; I'm getting my information from media reports," he began, to laughs from the assembled press corps. But Lu soon reverted to form, reading from scripted remarks that 31 high-ranking bureaucrats who had acted "contrary to law and party discipline" had already been punished. "It doesn't matter who you are, how high your position is." Violators would be "punished severely, and this is absolutely not an empty statement." That was his entire answer, Lu explained. He concluded with a beseeching gesture, and added, "you understand." The crowd broke into laughter again.

It was a light moment, but its significance was not lost on anyone in attendance: a central government official had just acknowledged that Zhou was in trouble. It not only gave rise to a new Chinese Internet meme, with "you understand" becoming code for the name many then dared not write or speak. It also preceded a slow drip of domestic media coverage that lent credence to earlier foreign reports of Zhou's imminent career demise -- particularly a December 2013, Reuters report that quoted anonymous sources saying Zhou had been placed under house arrest -- and muted, highly coded Chinese social media chatter that touched obliquely on the Reuters report and the rumors surrounding Zhou.

In early March, just two days after the now-famous presser, China's Tencent news portal published purported flyover video of Zhou's family compound, although the article was focused on son Zhou Bin. That same month, Beijing News reported that a "task force" had arrested Zhou's brother, Zhou Yuanqing, and his wife. And in July, state news service Xinhua reported that Jiang Jiemin, once a high-ranking oil executive connected to Zhou, was under investigation for breaking the law. He had "fallen from his horse," the report read, Chinese slang for a disgraced official. Each subsequent report, high-profile arrest, and public affront to the Zhou family tore yet another chunk from the tattered edges of the security czar's once-formidable web of influence and patronage.

It's unclear whether the slow procession of reports touching on the man many netizens also took to calling "Master Kang" -- a brand of noodles that happens to share part of Zhou's given name -- was part of a grand media strategy. If so, it was a masterstroke, at least from the perspective of a leadership determined to ensure that Chinese media bolster party control. President Xi Jinping had promised in January 2013 to go after both "tigers and flies," meaning officials high and low, who were guilty of corruption. By the time state-news services announced that Zhou was under investigation for "serious violations of party discipline" -- with investigation almost certainly leading to charges and eventual conviction -- the fall of tiger Zhou, once a political rival to Xi, was widely seen as a fait accompli. Within hours, Chinese mainstream media had flooded Weibo, China's Twitter, with retrospectives, infographics, and long-form analyses that had obviously been prepared in advance and then held for publication, much the way media outlets treat obituaries for statesmen. Few grassroots comments evinced anything approaching surprise.

That's not to say Zhou isn't a hot Weibo topic. Over 1.3 million comments mentioning "Zhou Yongkang" have proliferated less than 24 hours after the years-long ban on his name was lifted. Particularly popular are close readings of the damning 76-word announcement, a typically terse entry from the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, an organ that totes a stick large enough to bludgeon the most powerful cadre but speaks softly enough to elicit everyone's inner Kremlinologist. One popular theory -- shared by observers as diverse as state mouthpiece newspaper People's Daily and feisty independent journalist Luo Changping -- is that the press release's failure to call Zhou a "comrade" means that his expulsion from the party is inevitable.   

They are correct, of course; even without knowing what charges will be filed against Zhou, it's all but impossible to imagine Zhou keeping his party membership, or even his freedom. That explains why many users are, to quote just one, "not the least bit shocked" at the recent revelations. More noteworthy is how the fundamental debate about Zhou's downfall eerily echoes that surrounding one-time rising star Bo Xilai's April 2012 expulsion from party ranks: to wit, whether the culling of a corrupt man (and some of his cronies) is better than nothing, or actually undermines rule of law and trust in the party by allowing the victors in a power struggle to solidify their gains by throwing rivals in the brig. 

The Weiborati appear split on this central question, just as they once were with the far more popular Bo. Many were happy to see Zhou brought down. One wrote that it constituted a "huge victory," even if economist Liu Shengjun fumed that Zhou "can't avoid responsibility for his role in setting back the rule of law" during his time in power. Another cheered "for this country's bright tomorrow," because the time had apparently arrived "to bid goodbye to the era of unbridled power." Yet another lauded the president, writing, "long live boss Xi!"

Others felt that that Xi's anti-corruption campaign was mere cover for a political purge, or what one called "extraordinarily intense [power] games in the background." In response to the widespread celebration about Zhou's fate, one user asked, "Who are you cheering? It's still not supervision by [political] opposition," meaning that the party's power, and thus the opportunities for graft it affords, remain essentially unchecked. According to another, the major question isn't whether Zhou is a big tiger, as he surely is, but whether there "are little tigers who are right now growing up." One even advanced the unpopular argument that fallen officials such as Zhou -- who elicits almost no sympathy in Chinese social media, or anywhere else -- are "tragic figures from head to toe" because they "have no legal means to fight back."

Zhou -- who likely now sits in the dreaded legal limbo reserved only for the party's fallen, known as shuanggui -- probably has few legal options at his current disposal. But cadres in his position years hence may face a different scenario. As many netizens noted, authorities released the news about Zhou almost simultaneously with the announcement of the fourth party plenum in October, one that state broadcaster CCTV claims will "comprehensively promote the role of law." It remains to be seen exactly what that means. It could bring an element of due process into party disciplinary proceedings, which currently operate outside the law. It could require party officials to disclose assets, a request at the top of many citizens' wish lists, but one unlikely to be granted soon. Or it could simply reaffirm the party elite's current approach: using law as one of many tools to bring opponents to heel.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Sidney Leng, and Rachel Lu contributed research. 

thierry ehrmann/Flickr

Tea Leaf Nation

Look Who's Not Talking

Behind the scenes, the Chinese and Japanese governments are barely communicating. That should worry us all.

TOKYO -- The world's second and third biggest economies are not talking -- and that spells trouble far beyond Northeast Asia. In early July, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the most significant revision to Japan's security policy since the end of World War II, partly in response to Chinese incursions into Japanese territorial waters in the East China Sea, where a dangerous standoff is underway over a cluster of small islands known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan. While Abe's new policy has generated concerns about Japan's potential remilitarization, Washington has welcomed it as a vital boost to the U.S.-Japanese security alliance. Yet conversations with senior national security officials in Tokyo in mid-July reveal a striking absence of the bilateral communication channels necessary to defuse growing tensions between Asia's two major powers.

High-level Japan-China talks have been in a deep freeze ever since the Japanese Government nationalized three of the Senkaku/Diaoyu in Sept. 2012, opening a prolonged diplomatic rift. Japan's Ambassador in Beijing, Japanese sources say, lacks access to the Chinese Foreign Minister. Notwithstanding a brief and positive interaction between the two sides' navy chiefs at a symposium in the Chinese port city Qingdao in April, discussions on an important maritime communication mechanism have been on hold since June 2012. When a Chinese frigate aimed weapons-guiding radar at a Japanese destroyer in Feb. 2013, no known hotline was in place to defuse the situation.

In 2013 alone, Abe crisscrossed the Asia-Pacific to deepen regional partnerships, spanning all 10 countries in the regional block Association of Southeast Asian Nations, then added visits to Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea in July. But he has not had a single bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This is not for want of effort; in July, Abe expressed a desire to meet with Xi at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November in Beijing, while a senior Japanese official reportedly secretly visited China to explore the possibility of such a meeting. But a Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman has avowed that Abe's Dec. 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead including 14 war criminals, has "shut the door on talks with Chinese leaders."

Encouraging evidence is scant. Senior Japanese opposition politicians traveled to China in July to meet with senior officials there, including Liu Yunshan, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the group of seven men that runs the country. But such contacts, while valuable, cannot substitute for the institutionalized mechanisms needed to deescalate a potential incident in the East China Sea. Those channels that remain open have serious limits. Japan has used working-level talks to communicate on national security matters with Chinese officials, but Japanese counterparts say they have encountered a lack of reciprocity and transparency that may chill further information sharing. And while Japanese trade officials note the Chinese have sent "clear signals" they want economic ties to stay on track -- the only Minister-level bilateral meeting that has occurred since Sept. 2012 has been between Japan's Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry and his Chinese counterpart -- business is increasingly hostage to the politics of the relationship. In the first half of 2014, Japanese investment in China plunged 50 percent.

As a result of this silence, the risk of an inadvertent escalatory incident in the East China Sea is high. Japanese officials frame their new security policy as one driven by their desire to make a "proactive contribution to peace," but it's undergirded by deep-seated anxiety about China's growing military power and assertiveness, the shifting balance of power in Asia, and a desire to be independent from what former Japanese ambassador to Italy Masamichi Hanabusa calls "the benevolence of other nations" like the United States.

A key driver of the new policy is China's pattern of repeated incursions into Japanese waters around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu, which includes not only the Feb. 2013 frigate radar scare but also two Chinese fighter jets' alarming decision to fly within 50 meters of Japanese surveillance planes in June. Abe's policy would enable the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to respond to such provocations, which fall short of an armed attack and thus currently preclude the JSDF from responding. But ambivalence over a possible deviation from Japan's pacifist Constitution, which in its text "forever renounce[s] war as a sovereign right," helped drive Abe's approval ratings down by nine points the month after the policy was announced. Japan's National Diet must pass legislation putting the policy into practice, and that push has been deferred until 2015.

Washington, which has already declared that its security treaty with Japan encompasses the Senkakus, applauds Abe's policy. But while an ambivalent Japanese public considers the measure, Washington can do more diplomatically simply by adapting successful tactics it has already applied this year. President Barack Obama should offer to host a quadrilateral meeting on the sidelines of the upcoming APEC summit in November with Xi, Abe, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye -- an extension of his trilateral meeting with the latter two in March. Xi's inclusion would demonstrate that U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea are not directed at containing China. The administration should also quietly suggest a freeze on escalatory activity in the East China Sea, akin to the one the U.S. State Department proposed in the South China Sea in early July.

To be sure, some analysts in Japan question the alarm with which the international community views the situation in the East China Sea. They caution that China recognizes Japan's robust naval capabilities and that, as a result, according to a retired Japanese admiral who did not wish to be named, the dispute will likely "fly level at high tension." But that's no solution. As the military gap between the two countries grows -- China's defense expenditures have grown by double digits almost every year for the past two decades and its military budget far eclipses Japan's -- political and diplomatic off-ramps will be all the more vital to avoid a collision. The peace and prosperity that has allowed Northeast Asia to emerge as the engine of the 21st century global economy is too precious to lose over a simple failure to communicate.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Huangdan2060