Zhou’s axing: unprecedented, probably irrelevant

Such a nice, warm, charming-looking man – you wouldn’t have thought he could do anything wrong. After holding him under house arrest since late last year, Beijing finally announces that ex-security chief Zhou Yongkang is being investigated for corruption. ‘Investigated’ here meaning ‘indicted, tried and found guilty’. Foreign Policy gives a good summary, and scores extra points for the headline ‘Say It Ain’t So, Zhou’.

A big sigh of relief comes from the South China Morning Post, where they stuck their neck out nearly a year ago and reported that Zhou could be the first-ever official from the uppermost tier of the Communist Party to answer (party-style) for his sins. After the elimination of Zhou’s close ally Bo Xilai, the idea that Chairman Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption purge would extend this high might not have been so far-fetched. But there was a risk. The SCMP’s owners use the paper to demonstrate loyalty to the Chinese leadership. Such a gesture is key to the shoe-shining ‘instant-noodle patriot’ culture of Overseas Chinese tycoons. It doesn’t matter who’s in charge: you grovel as nauseatingly as possible. You also hedge your bets. If some backroom deal had let Zhou off the hook, if some power struggle (or assassination, coup or whatever) had subsequently forced Xi to concede to the Jiang/Bo/Zhou/oil/etc faction, the SCMP’s proprietor and Mainland-linked managers would have been wetting themselves. Instead, they can look back and confirm that they indeed had a scoop. Phew. They live to shoe-shine another day.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Mysterious Big Stuff happening in China is that all manner of experts, analysts and observers come forward who – for all their valid and interesting points – have no idea what is really happening. They cannot have any idea. That’s how Beijing works. So everyone has to guess at what seems most probable or least improbable. For example, is this extensive anti-corruption purge primarily a way for Xi to remove opponents and thus increase his own power? There’s a big debate about this. You could try sitting down, relaxing and calmly reading out aloud the following statement: “This extensive anti-corruption purge is not primarily a way for Xi to remove opponents and thus increase his own power.” And think about how that sounds and feels.

Maybe Xi will now move on to pursue corrupt elements in his own faction and family. Maybe he will assume enough power to overcome princelings’ interests and ‘party before country’ instincts, and push through reforms to modernize the political system and introduce constitutionalism. Or maybe he and his entourage are simply looking forward to having the whole cesspit of a playing field to themselves.


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