For Chinese Power Game, a Changing Equation

ChinaFile How the fall of Zhou Yongkang may upend the "unwritten rules" of elite leadership.

On July 29, the Chinese Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) announced it was investigating ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang "on suspicion of grave violations of discipline." Zhou, who retired from the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) in 2012, is the first member of that body, the Party's elite inner circle, to face such an inquest for corruption and abuses of power. Contributors discuss Zhou's long-anticipated downfall and the possible outcomes of Chinese President Xi Jinping's sweeping anti-corruption campaign. --The ChinaFile Editors

Sebastian Veg, Research Professor at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Science in Paris:

When the announcement was made on July 29 that Zhou had been officially placed under investigation, it came so late that it was almost anticlimactic. Rumors had flown as early as spring 2012 that he had been involved in a coup attempt with Bo Xilai, the disgraced former Chongqing Party boss and Politburo member, and that he had cast the lone pro-Bo vote in the standing committee meeting that decided Bo's removal in March 2012. In the spring of 2013, it was rumored that a special Politburo meeting held in December 2012 shortly after the 18th Congress had approved a special investigation group under the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection to target high-level leaders. The South China Morning Post, under the editorship of Party-reformer Wang Xiangwei, has been aggressively marketing "leaks" about the alleged investigation into Zhou since August 2013. The long delay, and the repeated "leaks," suggest two points: Strong resistance within the Party to formalizing the investigation, and aggressive new marketing techniques ("leaks") inside the Party to make the decision irreversible.

A People's Daily op-ed presents the investigation as a sign of opening: "Cleaning out corruption is a necessary act to deepen reforms." Liberal commentators want to be sanguine: Du Daozheng and Wu Si of the monthly journal Yanhuang Chunqiu (China Through the Ages) both write that removing the immunity of former PBSC members is a step towards rule of law. However, they provide no decisive argument proving that Xi is not simply settling a factional score. Wu Si concedes that "in order to confirm that this is not a return to Maoist ‘hidden rules‘ but the independence of justice... we not only need more cases, we also need institutional guarantees." Wu then scales back his argument one notch, saying that at the very least, tackling the immunity of former PBSC members puts an end to the control of former leaders over present leaders, and in this sense represents a step towards bringing institutional practice in line with constitutional rules.

There is, however, another possibility. Xi has consolidated power by making symbolic gestures to various political groups and interests, inside and outside the Party, balancing them one against the other. The decision to publicly investigate Zhou, judging by the time it took to announce it and the means employed, must have encountered huge resistance. Even as it reached the final stages, new rumors were floated about the possible targeting of Jia Qinglin, Zeng Qinghong, and even Jiang Zemin. One day after the announcement, Reuters wrote that the CCDI is sending inspectors to Shanghai to investigate associates of Jiang Zemin. A People's Daily op-ed entitled "Netting ‘Big Tiger' Zhou Yongkang is Not the Final Stop to Fighting Corruption" was scrapped from the Internet within 24 hours. There seems to be great anxiety that the anti-corruption campaign may become uncontrollable and degenerate into a full-fledged factional battle.

By shaking up the unwritten rules that have prevailed since Deng Xiaoping consolidated power, Xi is taking a political risk. In exchange for the immunity that PBSC members were granted, they were expected to retire at the end of their term, and to remain loyal to collective decisions. If immunity is denied, both of these tenets may begin to be questioned. Why should powerful leaders retire if they can then be targeted? Why should they accept decision by consensus if they can later be made to pay the consequences (as is alleged in Zhou's case with the vote on Bo)? They may be better off spending their terms gathering compromising material on other colleagues. Xi no doubt understands the risk, and believes it must be taken because the Party's legitimacy is in danger. However, by disturbing the carefully crafted institutional balance, he runs the risk of overplaying his hand.

Roderick MacFarquhar, the Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science and former Director of the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University:

I agree with the many who believe Xi has adopted a high-risk strategy. All but Xi and Premier Li Keqiang will retire from the PBSC in three years time; there will also be retirees from the Politburo. Are those retirees not going to wonder about their fates when they are no longer in office in light of what has been happening in Xi's first term? Since corruption is a major reason for indictment, how many of them can feel safe?

Mao Zedong had the legitimacy to divide and rule, to pick off his opponents one by one and group by group in 1966-67, with nobody daring to ally with colleagues because Mao was against cliques. It is difficult to believe that Xi, however self-confident, has yet established his authority over his peers to prevent any of them from deciding to unite against him.

Taisu Zhang, Associate Professor at the Duke University School of Law and Ph.D. candidate in History at Yale University:

I agree that Xi likely expended tremendous amounts of political capital to bring Zhou down, and that this may very well deepen political divisions and mistrust within the Party leadership. The overall political math for Xi, however, is somewhat more complicated and profoundly ambiguous: He has very likely galvanized his supporters within the Party and, perhaps more importantly, seems to be generating a massive wave of personal popularity among the general population. For example, if the commentary on China's Twitter-like Weibo regarding Zhou's investigation is any indication, the anti-corruption campaign appears to be a smashing success in the court of popular opinion, a few notable cynics notwithstanding. Xi himself, according to a Pew Research Center survey, enjoys almost absurdly high approval ratings (92 percent, compared to 28 percent for Obama, and 44 percent for Putin).

Whether, and to what extent, this translates into additional political capital for Xi is unclear from the outside, but if he is indeed taking a page or two from Mao's political playbook, he will probably try much harder to utilize this than his stoic and technocratic predecessor. If he is successful, there is a chance that the political "rules" we have become accustomed to over the past three decades will be significantly revised, and there could once again be a truly populist element in Chinese high politics. This may seem farfetched, but then again, a political system so heavily reliant on "unwritten rules" was probably never that stable to begin with. Even if Xi is reluctant to play the personal popularity card, it is clear that he has already ventured into uncharted political waters.

Richard McGregor, Washington Bureau Chief for the Financial Times and the newspaper's former Beijing Bureau Chief:

You don't need to spend long in Beijing to realize at least one thing about Xi's anti-corruption purge and the felling of Zhou, the former state security czar -- this is an immensely popular campaign. Every person I talked to over two weeks this summer said they were happy to see senior party officials bought to account. Such anecdotal evidence is backed up by the gleeful reaction online.

Sinocism's Bill Bishop reported that traffic on Caixin magazine's website surged ten-fold after the news broke. Caixin, of course, has been covering the story better than anyone else. It helps that Caixin's editor and pioneering journalist Hu Shuli has long had good relations with the head of the CCDI, Wang Qishan, from his time in the finance sector.

As to whether Xi's campaign to capture crooked "tigers and flies" in the CCP is more of an old-fashioned purge than a genuine effort to weed out corruption, it is obviously a bit of both. For a leader who has vowed far-reaching economic change, it is also popular politics which may help in the implementation of difficult reforms.

From the outside, the toppling of senior party officials could seem to be damaging the CCP. From Xi's point of view, I think the opposite is the case. He believes he can install his own people in the positions vacated by the outgoing officials and strengthen the party overall in the process. As Steven Tsang of the University of Nottingham noted, these two things "are mutually reinforcing from Xi's point of view."

Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, was very much first-among-equals on the Politburo Standing committee; Xi, by contrast, has exhibited an instinct for grabbing power from the outset of his first term. As a way for intimidating any potential challengers, there are few better tools than an anti-corruption campaign, especially one run by an official of Wang's standing. (Wang, incidentally, does not have children, which means his own family is unlikely to make him vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.)

The big question remains: Where does it all end? It isn't just officials, worrying that they themselves might be targeted, who are asking this question. One reason why the CCP insists on doing its corruption inquiries in-house is that any independent investigator could rummage through its affairs at will, without worrying about broader political stability -- or, in other words, the impact on the party's monopoly power. That is why all corruption inquiries are first of all politically sanctioned, and then quarantined. This latest investigation has already gone much further than most would have predicted at the outset, but with Zhou's formal detention, it is also a good bet that it has peaked.

Finally, it's worth noting that this campaign is moving offshore in a big way. Remember, the party's anti-graft body has no legal status. It enforces party discipline which extends beyond mere laws. But with this current enquiry, what is effectively an extralegal body is exerting extraterritorial powers. Caixin has already reported how PetroChina's Canadian investments have been caught up in the Zhou investigation. The CCDI is also dispatching its investigators to other nations in search of the assets of "naked officials," the term given to officials who have children and spouses living abroad on their families' ill-gotten gains. Some countries are likely to quietly welcome the CCDI's help. Canada's court system struggled for years with China's effort to extradite from Canada Lai Changxing, the fugitive from the billion-dollar Xiamen smuggling scandal who fled China in 1999. The case damaged Sino-Canadian relations for a decade. Countries such as Australia and New Zealand, favorite destinations for "naked officials," do not want to have bilateral relations held hostage to domestic Chinese politics surrounding corruption. Hence, they have an incentive to quietly cooperate with the CCDI. Other countries may do so as well.   

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Can Chinese Journalists Still Push Boundaries?

ChinaFile What new regulations might mean for China's beleaguered reporters. 

On June 30, China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television posted a statement on its website warning Chinese journalists not to share information with their counterparts in the foreign press corps. Most major non-Chinese news organizations rely heavily on Chinese nationals to conduct research, identify sources, serve as interpreters, and, in some cases, interview sources who are reluctant to speak with foreigners over the telephone. The Chinese government doesn't consider these employees of foreign news organizations to be official journalists (and it forbids Chinese nationals from working as correspondents for foreign media organizations.)

It's unclear to what extent the new rules target them. But when overt censorship or self-censoring editors prevent Chinese journalists who work for the country's own media outlets from publishing their stories, they often pass them on to reporters at foreign news organizations, sometimes doing so through their Chinese news assistants. It is this information exchange that the new rules appear to want to block. Media watchers and journalists discuss how they read the new restrictions and gauge their likely impact.

David Schlesinger, founder of Tripod Advisors and former Chairman of Thomson Reuters China:

For much of the last two and a half decades, Chinese journalists have been pushing the boundaries -- many going into grey areas, others stepping boldly into danger zones, yet others going into forbidden areas and getting punished for it. Chinese journalism, both domestic and international, is much the better for this bravery.

International news bureaus, whose Chinese-national staff in the 1990s and before were limited to translating, making appointments, and the occasional nudge and wink about deeper stories, now have bureau "assistants" who are full correspondents in all but title and official recognition. Some get bylines, some go on to full journalistic careers outside of China's borders. But all this has been done outside of the regulations and with the tacit acceptance if not approval of the authorities.

Chinese domestic publications like Caijing, Caixin, Southern Weekly and others have pushed reporting far beyond what the state news agency Xinhua or the official People's Daily would ever do. What was once a monolithic press is now full of diversity, and full of bravery. But what is not in the regulations can always be stopped. "Assistants" have been called in for "chats". Reporters or editors have lost their positions. Others who allegedly violated China's vague but draconian secrecy laws have faced criminal sanctions.

So why the new regulations? Certainly many things in the last 18 months have become much tighter in China and the restrictions on reporting and expression much stronger. What these new announcements will do will make the sense of doom ever more present, and make self-censorship seem ever more necessary. Faced with the loss of profession, livelihood, or freedom, only the bravest journalists will continue to push the boundaries. Most will retreat. Most will wait to see how the regulations are actually used. Most will pull back from the reporting and the transparency that a modern society needs.

That Beijing felt this chill was necessary is testament to how brave and pioneering Chinese journalism has become. But it is also a sad reminder of the risks journalists have taken and will continue to take if they try to shed light on their society.

Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York:

The statement contains a new set of regulations warning members of the media against reporting outside of beats formally approved by their superiors or sharing "unauthorized" information with other-especially foreign-media outlets. Any such activities, it warned, might open an individual up to serious charges of revealing "state secrets." The regulations even call on media organizations to require employees to sign non-disclosure agreements promising not to transmit unapproved information to outside media outlets.

Such pronouncements cause Westerners to wonder whether China is actually still "opening up," whether more open markets are, in fact, leading to a more open society and a freer press. The Chinese Communist Party's fluxing attitude towards its Fourth Estate, one which sometimes has the aspect of a constantly changing tide, has added confusion about what the trend lines actually are. It has hardly helped that the Party and State continue to "tighten down," only to "loosen up," all according to its perceived need for more or less control over the flow of information.

This confusion has been exacerbated further by the fact that China has two competing conceptions of the press that are vying with each other and are constantly in a state of dynamic yin-yang tension. The first is the Western notion of the press not just as an independent, public watchdog arrayed against wrong-doing of all kinds, but as a check and balance against the over-reach of state, ecclesiastical, and corporate power. The second is the Leninist notion of the press -- indeed, of all art, culture and media-as the exclusive megaphones for the party and state. While a Western conception of the media's role in society has never been officially codified by the Party in China, it has gained much currency in schools of journalism and communication and in the newsrooms of more enlightened media outlets, particularly during times of more active political reform such as China experienced in the 1980s when a press law even came under formal discussion. But the Leninist notion of the role of the press has never been repudiated and has been the far stronger model.

First articulated by Mao Zedong in the 1940s, this idea that the primary -- indeed the only -- role of the press in society is to advance the interests of the Chinese Communist Party remains the pillar conception of China's press. The Party has sometimes tempered this rigid notion with a certain flexibility, or laxness, by exercising less onerous controls. But, whenever members of the press have pushed the boundaries of independence too far and strained the Party's indulgence, the Maoist notion of the press has been reasserted, sometimes with a vengeance. And, what we are evidently now seeing with these new regulations and warnings is just such a correction, a re-articulation of intention of the organs that manage the media to reign in the latitude that journalists have become accustomed to enjoying. Whether these new rules are immediately exercised or not is not as important as the role they play in warning journalists, even threatening them, that there are limits to how far they can stray from beyond the Party's field of political gravity.

When then leader Deng Xiaoping in effect cancelled Mao's economic revolution after taking power in the late 1970s, overthrowing his whole laboriously constructed system of state-run industrial factories, state-owned commercial enterprises, and people's agricultural communes, he dismantled neither the ideological principles which underlay the operating system for cultural and media organs, nor the elaborate systems and institutions set up to control and manage them, such as the Central Propaganda Department and the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. Nonetheless, it was tempting to imagine that as tectonic economic reforms transformed China, similar changes would ineluctably also transform such organs of control. But this was naïve.

In explaining why, it is important to remember that both the ideology of control and the institutional system it spawned have very deep roots not only in Mao's revolution, but in the Bolshevik revolution as well. They both were exported to China in the mid-1920s when Sun Yat-sen, and later Chiang Kai-shek borrowed Leninist organization principles to create the Guomindang, and later when men like Chen Duxiu, Li Dazhao, and Mao Zedong set up the CCP. Simply put, Vladimir Lenin's notion was that all organs of media, art, and culture in a revolutionary society must become "cogs and screws" in the machine of socialist and political revolution.

Mao echoed this notion in his 1942 "Yanan Forums on Art and Literature," a series of evening talks during Japan's occupation of China in which he proclaimed that, like all literature and art, journalism is one of the "indispensable cogs and wheels in the whole machine, an indispensable part of the entire revolutionary cause." He went on the explain that "there is, in fact, no such thing as art for art's sake, art that stands above classes or art that is detached from or independent of politics." Thus, in his view, it was just as important to control the organs of culture and information as it was to control the organs of military power. "To defeat the enemy we must rely primarily on the army with guns," he declared. "But this army alone is not enough; we must also have a cultural army, which is absolutely indispensable for uniting our own ranks and defeating the enemy."

And, as a reminder to any who might have imagined room for dissent, he added, "If anyone opposes the Communist Party and the people and keeps moving down the path of reaction, we will firmly oppose him."

Lest some good comrades had forgotten this fundamental principle on which China was founded in 1949, Mao reemphasized it again in 1961. "The role and power of newspapers," he said, "consist in their ability to present the Party's line, its specific policies, goals and work methods to the masses in the most effective and rapid of ways."

And when Deng Xiaoping came back into office to initiate his extensive reform program, his newly formulated "Current Propaganda Regulations for Print and Broadcast Media" reminded any over-zealous reformers that China's leadership would not countenance an independent press mimicking a Western model.

"Professionals in publishing, news, radio and television must uphold the spirit of the Communist Party," it re-emphasized. "Party newspapers and periodicals must be sure to publicize the opinions of the Party without condition."

Even as professional journalists have sought to adopt elements of the Western press model and to perform a greater watchdog role in Chinese society, the Party has never wavered from its foundation principle that the press in New China must remain the CPC's "mouth and tongue." It is this unyielding principle which lies behind each restatement of the Party's right, obligation, and commitment to manage China's press to serve its own goals, even as those goals have morphed substantially since the time of Mao. The latest set of regulations is only the most recent in a long string of reminders that the media in China has no legal basis to assure its independent, watchdog status.

Rogier Creemers, Research Officer at the Program for Comparative Media Law and Policy at the University of Oxford:

These new regulations find themselves at the intersection of two trends in China's media landscape. First, as Schlesinger and Schell have indicated, the Xi leadership is clearly aiming to re-discipline investigative journalism and critical voices. Second, they reflect a growing unease with the role of foreign players in various areas of China's information order writ large.

When I read these new regulations, I immediately thought of Gao Yu, the septuagenarian, international prize-winning reporter detained in May on the accusation of leaking state secrets. It is widely speculated that the document she leaked was the controversial "Document No. 9," in which the Central Committee defined seven categories of harmful speech. Obviously, the very act of sharing this document with what the propaganda authorities probably see as foreign hostile forces, has taken on a treasonous flavor in this tense environment.

To a certain degree, this is not new. Shielding inside information from foreigners has been a constant factor, even in a period of "openness." This ranges from the minute -- such as a 1987 circular warning domestic publishers not to tell foreigners that copyright regulations had been passed, because otherwise China would face demands for royalties to foreign businesses -- to the highest levels of politics.

What has changed, however, is the perceived extent to which foreign presence is seen as harmful to domestic "information security." After the Snowden revelations and the escalating tensions surrounding cybersecurity, the government has become increasingly concerned about domestic reliance on foreign telecommunications software and hardware, and has intensified efforts to develop indigenous technology. Shortly after Gao was detained, Beijing reportedly ordered large, strategic state-owned enterprises to cut ties with foreign consultancy firms, apparently out of fear that these might engage in industrial espionage.

But perhaps most importantly, foreign reporting on China has vastly improved in quality and quantity in the past few years, and is reaching a quickly-growing domestic readership. Successive reports about the leadership's wealth published by, amongst others, the New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, have further fuelled growing domestic disaffection, and challenged the credibility of official news outlets.

In response, the leadership now seems to be bent on erecting new barriers between domestic and international information environments. This is not strange in the light of the Xi administration's reform project. The leadership is trying to pull off a profound political and economic reorientation, and therefore aims to minimize the possibility of unpleasant surprises.

One big question, however, is the extent to which self-imposed information autarky may hurt China's economic prospects. The Chinese government generally has not been great at fostering international trust through transparency and communicative clarity. The fact that it took months to provide an official translation of the 3rd Plenum documentation is only one example of the failure to recognize that being the second largest economy in the world means many more people want to find out what's going on. The time for averting the limelight is over.

Wen Yunchao, a human rights and media censorship activist based in New York:

I don't believe that the government has ever been confused about its own stance on media controls. The core principle of the CCP's Leninist notion of the press is that the Party controls the media, and the media should be the mouthpiece of the Party and the people. From Mao to Deng even up to Xi, this stance has never changed.

Beginning with the founding of the Western China City Daily in 1993 and culminating in the Southern Weekly incident in 2013, twenty years of commercialization of the press in China have given many outsiders the impression that media controls are on the wane. But this is a misconception.

At the time of Deng's 1992 "southern tour," Party newspapers had no competitive market power and were funded primarily by subsidies from the government. With the introduction of market reforms, Party newspapers started founding daughter publications with stronger market appeal, whose proceeds could then support the operations of their parent newspapers and lighten their financial loads.

The authorities have never loosened their grip over these daughter publications, the commercial press. In general, the parent newspaper assigns the top staff of commercial newspapers, and the Party's propaganda organs continue to exert direct influence over the commercial media outlets, using phone calls, critiques of already published articles, and other measures to intervene on matters of content, overall direction, and personnel assignments. Nevertheless, over the past two decades, the staff of commercial newspapers have gradually adopted a value system and a market position similar to that of the Western media, resulting in friction between them and the authorities. The Southern Weekly is a good example of this.

As digital technology has accelerated the spread of information and the commercial media have become more influential, the government has continued to implement targeted restrictions in an effort to control the press. These include passing laws that prohibit and other websites from reprinting articles published in commercial newspapers, and other measures that limit the growth of commercial media. This trend came to a head in early 2013 when the Propaganda Department of Guangdong province forced Southern Weekly to pull its annual New Year editorial and replace it with one glorifying the Party, sparking protests from the staff and public. This was the final consequence of a steadily escalating campaign to reign in the power of commercial media.

Xi's speech on August 19, 2013, signaled that the fifth generation of CCP leadership planned to tighten its grip on media and ideology even further. Since then, a number of prominent Internet commentators have been arrested in harsh cyberspace purges, and at the same time the government has adopted a series of stricter measures, including banning the system of "cross-regional reporting," requiring newspapers to publish only the Xinhua News Agency's coverage of non-local stories, forbidding journalists to report outside their regular beats, imposing strict limitations on visas for foreign journalists, prohibiting reporters from using social media without approval from their organizations, and banning journalists from publishing unofficial critical reports. Most recently, under a set of new rules, Chinese journalists are barred from "illegally recording and transmitting state secrets" or writing articles for foreign news outlets, and are required to sign confidentiality agreements. All this testifies to the state's continuing determination to keep commercial media under its thumb.

- Translated by Austin Woerner