Zhou Youkang attends the opening session of the National People's Congress in Beijing in 2012 (AFP photo/Liu Jin)
The imminent purge of Zhou Yongkang, China’s security chief from 2007 to 2012, brings to mind that wonderful Chinese expression: “The fish rots from the head down”.
Since the major clearout after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, Zhou is now the most senior Communist Party official to be fingered by its internal affairs division, the Central Discipline Committee. He is the first former member of the elite Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) to be cast out by the Party. His case has implicated a reported 300 allies and relatives with total assets of US$14.5 billion.
Zhou is the star victim of Chinese leader’s Xi Jinping’s showy, constantly publicized anti-corruption campaign. Zhou's trial will be all about money and corruption, designed to showcase that Xi Jinping the reformer – who has promised to catch ”tigers” like Zhou as well as “flies”(lesser officials) is cleaning house in a ruthless and spectacular way – and at least officially – for all the right reasons. His campaign is the biggest in China’s history, yet it is destined to head precisely nowhere without political reform.
China must start at the very beginning with the establishment of rule of law, independent institutions such as the judiciary and financial regulators, as well as de-politicizing the police force and armed services. But Xi has already very clearly ruled that out.
Really, this is all about politics. In one way Zhou, the stony faced veteran of the oil and gas industry – his power base – was unlucky to be on the wrong side of the ledger when Bo Xilai, the former Politburo chief, went down in a mess of lurid tales of infidelity, poisoning and – yes – more corruption. Zhou wanted to back Bo into his old job but Xi cut it from the PBSC, which he trimmed from nine under Hu Jintao to just seven.
Yet Zhou’s fall has, more than many who have simply fallen to internal politics, been apposite. He was the prime mover behind the overriding policy of the Hu regime’s “stability maintenance”, a euphemism for crushing protest and dissent by any means possible.
Simply put, Zhou is a mass murderer. On his watch, thousands of people were executed by China’s pretence of a legal system, where judge, jury, prosecutors and police are presided over by the Communist Party’s Legal and Political Bureau, which he chaired during Hu’s regime.
We will never have any clue as to how many more Chinese citizens were knocked off by the country’s terrifying State Security Bureau, the country’s feared secret police who operate in a government-sanctioned zone of extralegal kidnapping, torture, evidence fabrication and murder.
Zhou has fallen victim to the same due process-free sham. He was last seen in public on October 12, after which Xi is reported to have ordered an investigation of him and his cronies. Under Zhou’s leadership, countless people were jailed without fair trial, and on the basis of flimsy or doctored evidence and with pre-ordained results. Let’s see how he likes it once he is on the other side of the fence, handcuffed and manacled – guilty until you are found guilty.
It’s interesting that Jiang Zemin, who backed Xi as leader and was the man at the nation's helm for 13 years (1989-2002) as China’s crony capitalism flourished, was reported in the Financial Times this week to have urged Xi to tamp down his anti-corruption drive. No surprises there. After all, no one wants the other old blokes in their weekly card game in some swanky state-owned palace locked up.
Another of Zhou’s notable achievements in his reign of terror was presiding over the oppression of minorities and government critics. Together with Hu Jintao, Zhou was chiefly responsible for the post-July 2009 campaign of terror and oppression (and cultural destruction) waged against the Uighurs in Xinjiang. It continues today – as does the ongoing oppression and cultural destruction of Tibet.
Zhou persecuted without fear or favor campaigners for all manner of basic human rights. Just to take a couple of examples, religious practitioners – in particular, “underground” evangelical Christians – and people living with HIV caused by government officials knowingly buying infected blood and supplying it to hospitals.
Zhao locked up Chen Guangcheng, a blind advocate for the ending of state-sanctioned forced abortions and sterilizations. As soon as he came out in protest, he and his family were put under particularly oppressive house arrest until his miraculous escape to the US embassy in Beijing and later his emigration to the US.
More generally, Zhou presided over a system that persecuted any advocates for peaceful and gradual change of a system that allows all of the above (such as incarcerated Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo). Anyone operating in that dangerous grey zone could get that knock on the door from one of Zhou’s boys any time, any day. It was not just these people that Zhou set out to destroy but their partners, children and parents.
Thousands of hard working business people who had the misfortune to cross the financial interests of a Party member suffered helplessly as years – sometimes decades – of hard work was destroyed or confiscated, all on Zhou’s say-so.
On Zhou’s watch the size of China's domestic security surpassed at least officially that of the People’s Liberation Army. That in itself speaks volumes about both the repression in Communist China and how long the Party can hold on.
By pulling off this long expected but as yet not officially announced removal of a Party member previously considered untouchable, Xi has stamped himself as China's most powerful leader since at least Deng Xiaoping. He's made some progress (The destruction of Zhou is not progress; in fact, quite the opposite. It is reminiscent of Mao's own purges.) but the jury is still very much out on whether he will wield power wisely.
For all of Xi's boasting about the campaign against corruption, as long as the Party remains in control it will continue on its paranoid, willful and violent way. Zhou in many ways is the ultimate product of a system whose biggest threat is the very system it created.
The vilification of Zhou will be directed by the Propaganda Department in China’s state-run press, which once lavished Zhou with gushing praise. Now when you read eye-popping tales of 30-car garages, bulging Swiss bank accounts, villas worthy of America’s antebellum South and the endless stream of perfumed mistresses decked out in designer Versace, remember that Zhou, like others who were singled out for destruction before, was hoisted on his own petard.
Then spare some time to think about his victims – casualties of a rotting Party that encourages and sanctions evil people like Zhou Yongkang in order to continue to serve more of the same. Don’t for a moment think that this has anything to do with the people.
Michael Sainsbury is a Bangkok-based journalist and commentator