Zhou Yongkang was no ordinary Chinese politician, but the third ranking member since 2007 of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). The Standing Committee members are the real rulers of China. His responsibility — the control and supervision of the vast internal security apparatus, including the criminal justice system — gave him immense power and prestige.

With a financial budget for internal security that exceeded that of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Zhou was a formidable figure. Unfortunately for Zhou, in the power struggle that followed the end of Hu Jintao’s tenure as secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he lost out to present incumbent Xi Jinping. It was only inevitable therefore that Zhou would lose his position in the PBSC. In a sense, his ouster, trial and sentencing for life is no ordinary event in the political skullduggery that surrounds the governance of China and may indeed be a turning point.

During his trial that quite predictably was held in secret, Zhou was accused of three grave offences. First, that he abused power, second that he accepted bribes and third that he revealed state secrets. The third charge is the most interesting: Zhou is reported to have given six important state documents to Cao Yongzheng, a Xinjiang-based ‘sage’ who, as reported by a Chinese magazine, had since his childhood reportedly attained the ‘powers’ to predict people’s future. We can only speculate, but it seems entirely plausible that Zhou was probably seeking divine prediction on whether he would succeed to the top job of CCP secretary general on the retirement of Hu Jintao. It is also entirely possible that the leaked documents detailed salacious misdemeanours of Zhou’s political rivals. What these were we would perhaps never know for Cao too was arrested and was a prominent prosecution witness against Zhou.

The charge that Zhou siphoned off $118,000 (Dh 433408) and on which he stands convicted is rather frivolous, considering that about a year ago, a New York Times report had estimated the wealth of Zhou, his family and associates at about $160 million and which did not include their bank accounts, real estate and assets held by proxies.

It is possible that Zhou accepted the lesser charge as a part of a bargain that the Chinese authorities would not prosecute or harass his family members. But to award him a life sentence for a paltry $118,000 is perhaps indicative of the fact that this trial had more to do with an internal power struggle than cleansing of corrupt elements in the upper echelons of the CCP. In this respect the ruling group of Xi also had to be careful of how to play the corruption card within the higher echelons of the CCP, when Chinese political rhetoric paints the CCP as quite something else. It is also noteworthy that when Xi talks of catching the ‘tigers’ and not only ‘flies’ in his anti-corruption campaign, the targets so far have unexceptionally been his political opponents. The ouster of Bo Xilai is one such prime example.

Most of Zhou’s supporters such as Jiang Jiemin, a former head of the huge China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) and Li Dongsheng, a former vice minister for public security and a member of the Central Committee have also been arrested on corruption charges. While loudly proclaiming that he would “fight corruption at every level, punish every corrupt official and eradicate the soil that breeds corruption”, it has been alleged that Xi invariably used Maoist methods of intimidation, confession and open TV trials to mainly pursue a vendetta against his political opponents.

Significantly, former premier Wen Jiabao and his family, who siphoned off an estimated US$2.7 billion, as calculated by the New York Times from Chinese records, has so far remained untouched. The extent of the malaise of corruption at the highest levels can be seen in the fact that the Financial Times of March 7, 2013, listed 83 billionaires as members of the National People’s Conference (NPC), the Chinese parliament, as opposed to none in the US Senate or House of Representatives.

In a move to consolidate his power, Xi has considerably tightened his control over the inconvenient media. Information security has been elevated to become one of China’s core security concerns. According to Amnesty International, Xi’s China probably has the largest number of journalists and cyber journalists in the world that are imprisoned. Although the number of internet users in China in 2013 reportedly reached 718 million or about 52 per cent of the population, yet the internet content is vigorously censured by what is euphemistically called the “Great China Firewall”. A new office established under the State Council ensures that little escapes the censor’s scissors.

As the Vice Minister from the State Internet Information Office, Ren Xianliang, explained, the aim is to have “cyberspace with Chinese characteristics”. In addition, all Chinese journalists are required to pass an ‘ideology’ exam before receiving accreditation. The foreign press too has been targeted. Bloomberg’s website, as well as the Chinese language websites of both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, were blocked for daring to publish details of the wealth amassed by Chinese leaders, including that of members of Xi’s extended family.

The incarceration of Zhou Yongkang may therefore be a turning point in contemporary Chinese politics for it is the first time that a member of the Standing Committee of the politburo has been so punished. But the jury is still out for it is perhaps too early to tell. It almost reminds those familiar with Chinese history of what Mao did to the then Chinese president Liu Shaoqi in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution.

Unquestionably, Xi has emerged as the most powerful Chinese leader since the late Deng Xiaoping. His hardline approach to domestic policies point to a return to original Maoist moorings; but his economic policies are still pragmatic, reformist and forward looking.


R.S.Kalha is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry and a former member of the National Human Rights Commission.