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President Xi Jinping is amping up his anti-graft offensive at the highest levels of the Communist Party

Here’s why that’s dangerous for China.

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Future inmates? (ChinaFotoPress//Getty Images)

HONG KONG — After more than a year, China’s seemingly unstoppable anti-corruption campaign is continuing its remarkable pace.

Just in the last week, three high-level officials have been taken down.

  • Guo Yongxiang, a former Sichuan province deputy governor and influential oilman, will be prosecuted for graft.
  • Zhao Miao, a party apparatchik based in Sichuan’s capital, has been detained by the much-feared Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
  • Yan Cunzhang, China National Petroleum Corporation manager for foreign cooperation, was also detained by the commission.

All three are tied to the ultimate target that, so far, both the Chinese government and mainland media refuse to name: Zhou Yongkang.

Zhou was arguably one of the three most powerful men in China until the end of 2012. For four years he had served at the head of China’s vast domestic security apparatus, with a budget larger than the military’s and the task of keeping the Chinese people under the party’s control. Prior to that, he had built up a seemingly unassailable power base in Sichuan, one of China’s most populous provinces. He had spent years at the top of China National Petroleum Corporation, the country’s biggest energy company.

But Zhou was a rival of Xi Jinping, who now holds China's top job.

“If Xi really pushes forward with this anti-corruption campaign, tens of thousands of officials would fear for their safety.”

In late March, Reuters reported that an astounding $14.5 billion in assets had been seized so far in the inquiry into Zhou’s alleged misdoings. The public fall from grace of ally Bo Xilai — whose wife was convicted of killing British businessman Neil Heywood — created an environment in which Xi apparently felt he could detain Zhou and build a case against his nemesis by investigating his family and business associates.

China’s opacity makes it difficult to know why Zhou has yet to be accused of anything, 16 months after the first members of his personal network began to fall. One possibility: members at the top of the party hierarchy are pushing back.

Regardless, it is safe to say that Xi knows he must tread carefully if he is to take Zhou down publicly, as it could lead the party — and China — into turmoil.

Here’s why.

Since the bloody suppression of civilian protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, two non-negotiated and unspoken “agreements” have underpinned political stability in China. Under this two-track arrangement, China has experienced a quarter-century of unprecedented economic growth.

The first is that the Chinese people would be afforded greater economic freedoms in exchange for not challenging the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.

The second is that purges of top officials are to be avoided. This is seen as being in the interest of party survival: The appearance of division among party leaders was one development that emboldened the Tiananmen protesters.

China’s Communist Party is the world’s largest political party, with 85 million members. They range from Xi, who is officially the party’s general secretary, down to low-level public servants in remote villages. Think of it at as a massive pyramid. At the top is the 25-member Politburo, and at the very top of that is the Politburo Standing Committee, whose membership has fluctuated between seven and nine. In addition to being general secretary (read: boss) of the party, president, and head of the military, Xi is also the first-ranked member of the Standing Committee.

With so many top level titles, it is tempting to view Xi as a modern-day emperor. But he contends with one force that dynastic predecessors didn’t: retired party elders who still maintain vast networks of influence and patronage among top members.

Every five years, most members of the Standing Committee retire, fading quietly into the background, safe in the knowledge that they’ll live their twilight years beyond the infighting at the top of the pyramid.

The slow-motion takedown of Zhou that began a month after he retired from the Standing Committee in November, 2012 has no doubt alarmed party elders. This group includes former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, as well as many other powerful former cadres. Suddenly, they too have become vulnerable.

Recent reports in Hong Kong media state that Jiang, who was promoted to the top of the Communist Party as a result of his