Tea Leaf Nation

The 'Anti-Corruption' Campaign That Wasn't

Former security czar Zhou Yongkang was deposed because he lost a power struggle, not because he was corrupt.


What follows is an abridged translation of a personal blog entry originally published in Chinese. --The editors

On July 29, the Chinese central government officially announced that former minister of state security and former member of the elite Politburo Standing Committee Zhou Yongkang was suspected of "serious violations of [Communist Party] discipline," and that the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection would commence a review. Zhou Yongkang is thus far the highest-ranking target claimed by Chinese President Xi Jinping's "anti-corruption movement," which began in January 2013 and continues in earnest. But the so-called corruption crackdown is, at its core, a power struggle under another name. China's palace politics are notoriously opaque; the red walls of Zhongnanhai, the government compound in central Beijing, are thick. But Robert Daly, a scholar at the Washington, DC-based Kissinger Institute on China and the U.S., told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that Zhou is closely associated with fallen Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, and that "Rumors that Zhou would be investigated have been circulating since the Bo scandal broke in early 2012." 

Everyone knows that if Chinese central authorities actually wanted to fight corruption, there would be no shortage of free, unrestricted media and civil society organizations criticizing and tracking official behavior. Instead, over the past few years, authorities have actively prohibited independent and free media from performing their oversight function, while also retaliating against people like Xu Zhiyong, a member of the so-called New Citizens Movement who has demanded an end to corruption and the disclosure of officials' private assets. These actions prove out the hypocrisy underlying the party's anti-corruption efforts.

Although party authorities have gone after some corruption officials, they have been selective. The right to decide whom to prosecute lies in the hands of those with power in the party, and the outcomes aren't dictated by which officials are actually most corrupt. Instead, the anti-corruption move has become a tool to strike at one's political opponents in internecine power struggles. Xi has used this tool to consolidate authority at the center.

If party authorities really wanted to stop corruption, they would not maintain such an adversarial posture towards well-known foreign media operating in the country; instead, they would welcome both domestic and foreign media as watchdogs. The New York Times and Bloomberg news have been providing high-quality news by respected reporters inside China. But because they investigated the massive family wealth of both Xi and then-Premier Wen Jiabao, the websites of both services have been blocked by China's so-called Great Firewall of Censorship. That block, which was erected in July 2012 against Bloomberg and October 2012 against the Times as punishment for the reports on Xi and Wen, continues to this day.

I was once an editor at a major Chinese online portal. During my tenure there, I received a number of internal, confidential communiqués from propaganda authorities, organs that many group together and ironically label the "Ministry of Truth." I believe these directives, taken together, provide the written history of this era of preposterously harsh restrictions on speech.

One order, dated June 29, 2012, coming on the heels of Bloomberg's report on Xi, calls the report "completely vile" and prohibits "every website, without exception," from posting it. It adds that any social media accounts that re-tweet "the article or any related harmful information will be closed without exception."  

In October 2012, after the New York Times report on Wen hit the wires, the Ministry of Truth issued another directive asking "all micro-blogs, blogs, and discussion forums" to delete both the article, which it called "an attack on central leaders," as well as "all related information and comments." On November 25, after the Times' English and Chinese-language sites had already been blocked, the Ministry issued another directive: "Please use the key terms ‘Ping An,' ‘Ping An Insurance,'  ‘Tai Hong' [all companies mentioned in the Times report], ‘Wen family members,' etcetera to perform a domestic search." Those who found "[related] forwards or discussions" were to "report it immediately, then delete the content."

It's clear that the Ministry of Truth rigorously protects central party officials and their families from disadvantageous news. They accomplish this in part by labeling such news "attacks" or "defamation" and requesting "comprehensive" blocking and deletion of the same. That's why, after Jiang Jiemin, then the corrupt chairman of China National Petroleum Corporation, was made director of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, the Ministry issued a March 10 order requiring "comprehensive deletion" of "harmful posts" and the blocking of keywords related to "revelations of massive corruption [by Jiang] and capital flows to Zhou Yongkang." By September 2013, Jiang had been removed from his post and placed under investigation for abuse of power and corruption.

The Ministry of Truth's protection once extended beyond Zhou's circle, to Zhou himself. An October 2013 communiqué asked recipients to "please clean up" any content relating to "a special task force" set up by Xi to investigate Zhou. (Just days earlier, the Twitter account of state broadcaster CCTV had tweeted that a "special unit" had been established to investigate Zhou, even mentioning him by name; CCTV later deleted the post and claimed its account had been hacked.) In December 2013, another order called for a "comprehensive clean up" of information related to Zhou from microblogs, popular mobile chat platform WeChat, online discussion forums including the popular Baidu Tieba, and other interactive platforms. It also asked recipients to keep an eye on "mobile clients" of those platforms, who were to be prevented from spreading related information. Then in early March, just days after a spokesperson for a political advisory body called the CPPCC subtly suggested Zhou was in trouble, a directive wrote, "Higher authorities have notified that all reports, articles, topics, plans, etcetera" about Zhou's son, Zhou Bin and Zhou Bin's "family network" must be "pulled backstage immediately." Violators would be "severely punished" by the National Internet Information Office.

If central party authorities really wanted to fight corruption, the propaganda authorities that it controls would not be protecting officials in a way that creates an institutional environment conducive to corruption and rent-seeking. The crackdown on Zhou is a product of the will to power. When the Ministry of Truth lifted its protection on July 29, it was clear that Zhou had lost the power struggle. 

As of today, China's party authorities continue to prohibit the existence of free and unrestricted media. Criticisms of central officials continue to elicit retaliation. And Xu Zhiyong and other prisoners of conscience continue to sit in jail cells. As long as this is all true, any so-called anti-corruption efforts look like nothing more than a tool to aggregate power and an excuse to strike down political enemies.

Translated by David Wertime. 

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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