Xi’s Power Play With Zhou Carries Risk of Undermining Party

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s biggest political maneuver since he took the nation’s helm both increased his authority within the Communist Party and escalated the risks of its legitimacy.

The corruption probe made public yesterday of Zhou Yongkang, the former state security chief and ally of ousted Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, demonstrated the confidence of Xi, 61, in his sway over senior leaders. The move capped a 18-month campaign against Zhou’s networks of influence through the party, national oil company and security forces.

With the official People’s Daily newspaper saying late yesterday that the Zhou news doesn’t bring an end to the anti-graft drive, one risk is the probe erodes public support for a party where corruption has been exposed on all levels. Underscoring concern with public accountability, Xi yesterday set an agenda for the party’s biggest leadership gathering that features bolstering the “rule of law.”

“The case shows only that fundamental political reform, not mild fixes here and there, can root out corruption,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian who previously worked at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. It has “exposed the systematic corruption to the core.”

Rising up from the state-owned oil industry, Zhou commanded a security apparatus that took up a greater share of the budget than the military. Since coming to power in November 2012, Xi has steadily targeted people with links to Zhou’s network, detaining oil executives and firing officials from southwestern Sichuan province where Zhou once served as party secretary.

Branches, Trunk

Nearly one quarter of the 35 officials of vice-ministerial rank or above toppled during the past 18 months had direct links to Zhou, according to Bloomberg calculations based on mainland media reports.

“Xi has been pretty cautious using a Sun Tzu strategy of surrounding the guy, cutting all the branches that are easier to cut before cutting the trunk,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political-science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Last September Bo Xilai, a former Politburo member who ran a municipality of 29 million people, was sentenced to life in prison for graft and abuse of power. The case was triggered by the killing of British businessman Neil Heywood, and Bo’s wife was separately convicted for murdering him. Zhou was an ally of Bo and publicly voiced support for Bo’s policies days before he was removed from his post in March 2012.

Zhou’s Network

“The main issue now is how they are able to contain the networks around Zhou that will also be implicated in this move,” Kerry Brown, executive director of the University of Sydney’s China Studies Center, said. “This could be an amazing witch hunt, and the sign that Xi and his fellow leaders are really politically in control will be whether they can avoid this becoming a debilitating internal purge.”

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign complements assertive regulatory and geopolitical initiatives that have seen his leadership team differentiate itself from the group led by former party chief Hu Jintao. Xi has given the military a mission to become better prepared for combat, and naval and coast-guard forces have stepped up efforts to enforce China’s claims over areas of the South and East China Seas.

Xinjiang Attack

On the regulatory front, foreign companies including Microsoft Corp. and GlaxoSmithKline Plc are among those that have seen business affected by a more aggressive Chinese stance. China this week opened an anti-monopoly investigation into Microsoft, months after the U.S. indicted Chinese military officers for allegedly stealing corporate secrets.

Xi is also leading a campaign to end separatist violence in the western region of Xinjiang. Within hours of the announcement of the Zhou probe, Xinhua reported that police had killed “dozens” of knife-wielding members of a mob that attacked civilians in the Kashgar prefecture on July 28.

China needs to be resolute in taking down powerful figures, or “tigers,” and clearing away corruption, or else it will be the end of the party and the nation, the People’s Daily said in a commentary posted on its website hours after the Zhou announcement. Zhou’s position of power doesn’t mean anti-corruption efforts have come to a full-stop, it said.

Tiger Cage

“No matter how big the tiger, as long as it commits evil and violates party discipline, it won’t be able to escape the cage,” the People’s Daily said in the commentary.

Xi has pledged to weed out corruption in the party by both “tigers and flies” and the announcement of the Zhou investigation coincided with International Tiger Day, which seeks to raise awareness about the shrinking global tiger population.

If Xi can stabilize the political situation as the Zhou case progresses, it will potentially give the party a new lease on life, Ding Xueliang, a professor of political economy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said. Xi is set to serve two terms of five years before handing over power under the current system.

“They can use this to generate much more discipline within the party, within the government, within the army and within the police,” Ding said by phone. “And at the same time persuade critics, ordinary citizens of China, ordinary members of the party. To show them that you have to learn your lesson through this. If one of the most powerful leaders like Zhou Yongkang can be punished, watch out.”

— With assistance by Ting Shi, Henry Sanderson, and David Tweed

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