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

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Future inmates?

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.

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 handling of demonstrations in Shanghai during the Tiananmen protests in 1989, has signaled to Xi that the current anti-corruption drive needs to go no further than Zhou.

Whether Xi will heed Jiang’s warning remains to be seen.

GlobalPost spoke with Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and senior fellow at the Washington, DC-based think tank Jamestown Foundation, about where Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is headed. The interview has been edited and condensed.

GlobalPost: There have been reports in Hong Kong media that Xi Jinping is going after Zhou Yongkang because Zhou and Bo Xilai were plotting against Xi. Do you think this is the reason for Zhou’s downfall?

Willy Wo-Lap Lam: I think that is the main reason. This goes back to the days before the 18th Party Congress [the November 2012 meeting in which Xi ascended to the top of the party and Zhou stepped down], in May, 2012. Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang were the two senior cadres who were opposed to Xi becoming the general secretary because they thought he was not qualified. That accounts for the bad blood between Xi on the one hand and Zhou and Bo on the other.

What do you think of the report that Jiang Zemin has warned Xi to tap the brakes on the anti-corruption drive?

I think the report is true. There are two reasons for this. One is the unwritten understanding that members of the Politburo Standing Committee, either serving or retired, are untouchable, meaning they will be spared public prosecution. This is actually a mutual protection clause, protecting all existing and former Standing Committee members. If this rule is broken, that means everybody else is fair game, including Jiang Zemin himself. So I think that’s why not only Jiang but other retired Standing Committee members have a good reason to try to persuade Xi to not [push things further].

The other reason is that if Zhou Yongkang is prosecuted, former vice president Zeng Qinghong would be one of the former Standing Committee members most exposed. Zeng and Zhou were leaders of the so-called petroleum faction, and Zeng and Jiang are very close, they are the two leaders of the Communist Party’s Shanghai faction. This is one more reason why Jiang, who I think still has some influence over Xi, doesn’t want public prosecution for Zhou.

What are the downsides for China if Xi’s anti-corruption campaign goes too far?

Within the Communist Party this might lead to a power struggle between Xi and his supporters and other powerful cadres who fear for their own safety. This might precipitate several rounds of power struggles. It would be demoralizing to some extent because if Xi really pushes forward with this anticorruption campaign, huge numbers, tens of thousands of officials would fear their safety.

Would this have a disruptive effect on China’s economy?

The most obvious impact I see would be a huge outflow of money and assets out of the country. There are at least tens of thousands of cadres who have become multimillionaires because of corruption.

Are Hu or Jiang capable of defending themselves against Xi if the net starts to close around either of them?

I don’t think Xi will be going after any other Standing Committee members because he knows the risks. It’s quite possible that if he indeed succeeds in the public prosecution of Zhou Yongkang he’ll stop there because he realizes this will be very divisive and this will render him isolated. There are many former Standing Committee members still alive, of course they are not in good health, but they are still powerful people within the party.

Do you think current Standing Committee members are safe?

There are no reasons why Xi should go after them, because they have deferred to his authority.

Assuming he stops at Zhou, what do you think Xi will turn his focus to afterward?

I think for a while he’ll focus on the PLA [People’s Liberation Army, China’s army], where there is currently an ongoing anti-corruption campaign involving senior people. I think the extent of the anti-corruption campaign in the military will be on a much smaller scale than within the civilian sector. Xi Jinping needs the support of the generals.