Tea Leaf Nation

Paper Tiger

How China's once-feared top security chief Zhou Yongkang became just a sad old man.

For 10 months, the fate of Zhou Yongkang existed in a space of plausible deniability. Respected Western media outlets had reported that the 71-year-old Zhou, a retired official who served as China's much-feared domestic security czar from 2007 to 2012, was being investigated for corruption and had been placed under house arrest. Chinese state media published long exposés on the alleged corrupt practices of his son Zhou Bin, and on his many associates and protégés. But they never once uttered his name.

Sometimes they obliquely called him "The Tiger," in reference to Chinese President Xi Jinping's oft-quoted mantra of his anti-corruption campaign: fight both flies (low-ranking officials) and tigers (the bosses). Sometimes they called him Zhou Yuangen, his original name, or the father of Zhou Bin. And sometimes they called him "You Understand, Don't You," the phrase a government spokesman coyly used to explain why he couldn't say more about Zhou. For Chinese state media writing in Mandarin, his actual name was too serious and terrifying to print -- without confirmation from officialdom that the hammer had fallen on Zhou.  

That taboo was broken on July 29, when China's official news wire Xinhua released a one-sentence statement confirming that Zhou is under investigation for serious discipline violations. (In China, an official announcement of being under investigation is basically tantamount to conviction.) Soon afterward, dozens of Chinese state media outlets published articles about Zhou. And for the first time in Mandarin, they used his name.

China's fearsome former domestic-security enforcer is now finished. Zhou is now likely under shuanggui: Chinese Communist Party-speak for an internal investigation against its own members -- a process that usually involves lengthy detention and intense interrogation without any due process or legal representation.

Zhou's downfall is a big deal. From 2007 to 2012 Zhou was a member of the party's top governing body, the Politburo Standing Committee. Officially, he was the secretary of the Central Politics and Law Commission, which oversees domestic security in China. Comrades with loftier titles than Zhou have been ousted before because of political infighting. Mao Zedong purged Chinese President Liu Shaoqi in 1966. Deng Xiaoping took down Wang Hongwen, who ranked third in the Politburo Standing Committee for part of the 1970s, and placed Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang under house arrest in 1989. But there are no known examples of current or former members of the Standing Committee being investigated for corruption in this manner. 

However, there are still quite a few precedents for handling Zhou's case. Three men in the 25-member Politburo have been investigated and prosecuted for corruption in the past two decades. If their experiences are anything to go by, Zhou can expect at least a year of internal investigations by the party, followed by a formal prosecution in the judicial system, which could take months to reach a verdict. Chen Xitong was removed from his post as Beijing's party boss in September 1995, and a court convicted him in February 1998. Similarly, Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu was removed from his post in September 2006 and sentenced -- to 18 years for bribe-taking and abuse of power -- a year and half later, in April 2008.

In the age of social media, the current generation of Chinese may expect a public trial of Zhou, much like the closely followed August 2013 trial of ex-Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai that was broadcast online via Sina Weibo, China's Twitter. However, Bo might be the exception rather than the rule. Once dubbed China's "only celebrity politician" prior to his fall from grace, Bo had long been known as a showman who sought out the limelight and had a solid fan base among left-leaning Chinese. Immediately after the announcement of his investigation in April 2012, rumors on Chinese-language websites indicated that Bo had refused to cooperate with the investigators -- unless he received a public trial.

Zhou, on the other hand, does not seem to have the same fondness for the camera. Even in a government known for its opacity, Zhou was a mysterious presence, known for his frown, and his Jack Palance-esque feats of strength: China News Service, a state-run news agency, wrote of a trip he took to a police station in Yunnan in 2007, where the then-65-year-old surprised onlookers by doing "10 sit-ups in one breath."

But the media flurry since the announcement of his indictment may be intended to humanize Zhou -- to show him as a man with faults, rather than an indistinct symbol of absolute power. Along with long biographies of Zhou and his rise and fall from power that Chinese state media released on July 29, several news outlets also presented detailed and painstakingly curated photo slideshows, which contain a number of previously unreleased and surprisingly candid shots of Zhou. The news portal Sina published 21 photos, including one that may show Zhou targeted in a Mao-era (1949-1976) campaign -- if true, a previously unknown setback to Zhou's career. More impressive is the 62-photo slideshow curated by the news portal ifeng. There is a photo dated October 2010 of Zhou clasping hands with reclusive North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, looking over a crowd of an estimated 100,000 people. There are several photos of a younger Zhou in the 1980s, smiling generously at his comrades. There are photos of Zhou walking or giving press conferences with the now-disgraced Bo. But none of the photos appear to show any non-disgraced top official. The shots -- common in party pageantry -- of the members of the Standing Committee standing together were absent.

The cover image shows Zhou with his eyes squeezed shut, his mouth tightened by a frown. But unlike many photos of Zhou's frown, this one presents Zhou as a sympathetic figure, awash in his sorrows.

Zhou is no longer "Tiger," or "You Understand, Don't You," or a force only understandable through his relations with others. Now he is just a man. And he lost.

Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images

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