Zhou's rap sheet says much about his background.

Photographer: Feng Li/Getty Images

The Politics of Corruption in China

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
Read More.
a | A

China’s state media chose a strange time to announce the indictment of former security czar Zhou Yongkang: just after midnight in Beijing last Friday night. Zhou is the most senior Chinese official ever to face corruption charges, and given how keen the government has been to trumpet the other trophies taken during Xi Jinping’s ongoing anti-graft crackdown, one might have expected more fanfare. In 2013, former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, a lesser figure, was indicted on a Thursday, and his case was hyped both online and in the state media for days afterward. By contrast, state organs continued to downplay news of Zhou’s downfall well into Monday.

The contrast to Bo Xilai’s treatment can partly be explained by their relative standing. Despite the spectacular nature of Bo’s crimes -- including the cover-up of a murder committed by his wife -- he was the Communist Party secretary of China’s largest municipality. Zhou was the ninth-ranking member of the ruling Politburo, where he had oversight over intelligence services, law enforcement, and the courts.

Bo’s crimes were embarrassing to China’s rulers. Zhou’s -- which allegedly include bribery, leaking of state secrets, and general abuses of power -- threaten to undermine the Party’s very legitimacy. “There is one question that troubles me,” tweeted a Beijing lawyer on Monday morning, using China’s Sina Weibo system. “If Zhou Yongkang is so bad, aren’t the courts and judicial officers who were under his control even worse?”

Complicating the situation even further is Zhou’s personal background. In China’s political system he was a commoner -- the son of a fisherman, who achieved extraordinary clout without the benefit of elite connections. No doubt Zhou had to employ ruthless measures -- some of which are sure to be exposed at his trial -- to claw his way to the top. That stands in sharp contrast to Bo, a so-called princeling who achieved power in large part on the basis of family connections. The length of Zhou’s rap sheet is itself testimony to how differently the Party treats insiders and outsiders -- an uncomfortable fact, given its supposedly meritocratic ideals.

In the end, though, what the cases of Zhou and Bo share is perhaps more important than what they don’t. Both men clearly seem to be political, not just criminal targets. As with Bo, Zhou’s indictment was preceded by a methodical and ruthless investigation of his family and circle -- many of whom are now in detention and either charged or awaiting indictment on corruption charges of their own.

Uprooting those networks has helped Xi consolidate an almost unprecedented degree of power in just his first two years in office. It’s less clear that it has fundamentally reshaped the landscape for corruption in China -- a point underscored by almost daily announcements of another official taken into custody for graft. On Sunday, state media relished describing the arrest of a village official who had somehow managed to acquire 132 properties in Shanghai, China’s second-most expensive property market. 

Rather than promoting political and judicial reforms that would institutionalize the battle against graft, Xi Jinping has chosen to control the campaign centrally and -- on occasion, as with Zhou -- to handpick the targets. That’s bad news for anyone who gets in his way. It’s worse news for China, which could benefit greatly from a corruption crackdown that truly did treat all its targets the same.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net