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Dealing with Zhou a dilemma for Xi
Publication Date : 17-09-2013
Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent crackdown on a number of corrupt executives, targeting mainly the so-called "petroleum gang", is being lauded by the official Chinese press as displaying a strong commitment to fight corruption.
Indeed, this is the largest shake-up of the petroleum sector in the last two decades, with four top executives of oil giant China National Petroleum Corporation and its subsidiary, PetroChina, being detained and more than 250 mid-level executives of the two firms summoned to help in the investigation.
In addition, all senior executives above the level of divisional head of both companies were asked to cancel their overseas travelling plans for the time being.
A former CNPC chairman, Jiang Jiemin, was sacked from his position as head of the Cabinet-level commission that oversees state-owned firms.
The anti-corruption drive provides a most convenient pretext for shaking up the petroleum sector. But the real reason behind it is power consolidation by Xi.
To consolidate power, the President needs to weed out the influences of former security czar Zhou Yongkang, whose power base included the petroleum sector.
Xi has to purge Zhou for his alleged collusion with former Chongqing boss Bo Xilai to dethrone him. This attempted coup came to light only when Bo's right-hand man,
former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, defected to the US consulate in Chengdu in February last year.
During Bo's trial last month for graft, bribery and abuse of power, the close relationship between the two was again highlighted when Bo, in his defence, argued that the way he handled Wang's defection was based on a "six-point instruction from a senior leader". There is little doubt that the "senior leader" was Zhou, then in charge of the internal security apparatus.
In addition, Zhou had voted on March 7 last year against sacking Bo from his job after the defection scandal took place, according to a source.
Given the treacherousness of the duo's alleged plot calling into question the loyalty of the man who once controlled the country's internal security, Xi's position cannot be secure unless he goes after Zhou's linkages.
Hence this campaign to tear down Zhou's network, layer by layer, beginning with the police system, then his Sichuan province connections and now the petroleum sector.
A high-profile crackdown on the "petroleum gang" is also necessary in order to send an unmistakable message to former president Jiang Zemin and former vice-president Zeng Qinghong, Jiang's right-hand man, to not meddle in state and party affairs.
Zhou had been able to build his influence in the petroleum sector and climb up the power ladder, thanks to his ties with Jiang (Zhou's first wife was Jiang's niece) and Zeng, whose influence in the petroleum sector dated back to the early 1980s.
Given their close ties, the purge of Zhou would be a slap in the face for both Jiang and Zeng. It would serve to remind them that he, Xi, is now the boss who calls the shots.
Without silencing Jiang and Zeng, Xi may find it difficult to establish his own authority. He risks the same fate as his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who was in an anomalous situation in which Jiang retained de facto control over the military long after he officially retired, while he, Hu, was the de jure chief commander.
Until now, Jiang has shown no signs of withdrawing from the limelight, and this could have prompted Xi to serve the reminder.
And this reminder is far from subtle. On September 1, the forum section of Xinhuanet, website of the state news agency Xinhua, ran an article titled "These stars are not generals, don't call them this way".
The very first sentence of the article said: "Song Zuying, soprano in Chinese-style singing, is head of the Art and Cultural Troupe of the Navy's Political Department." Then it went on to say that there has never been such a title as "civilian general" in the military establishment.
The article is meant to echo Xi's August 26 directive to tighten up the management of similar troupes of the military, a hotbed of corruption. That it started with Song, said to have been awarded the title of "civilian general" thanks to her close ties with Jiang, is a reminder to the latter to shut up.
The probe into the petroleum sector could also silence Zeng. According to a report by the Sydney Morning Post newspaper on 24 April 2010, his son, Zeng Wei, allegedly bought a luxurious house in Sydney for A$32.4 million (US$30.2 million), the third most expensive house in Australia at that time. Zeng Junior was then described as a petroleum merchant.
Xi could well continue his probe of the petroleum sector to find out how the son managed to buy the house. This would go a long way to silencing the father.
Whether Xi can consolidate his power depends very much on whether he dares to break the tacit understanding among senior leaders that members of the elite Politburo, if convicted, would be spared the death sentence, while Politburo standing committee (PSC) members would be spared criminal conviction altogether.
This understanding provides the last line of defence for corrupt officials, with many of them having built their guanxi (network of influence) reaching all the way to PSC members. They are indirectly provided protective cover because any of their wrongdoings that implicate a PSC member would not be pursued by the courts.
If Xi follows this tacit understanding, then there will be a soft landing for Zhou, a retired PSC member, and pressure on Xi from other PSC members would be minimal.
But then, people will see clearly that there is a limit to the size of the tiger (or senior corrupt official) that Xi will fight, and this will hurt his credibility.
However, if he chooses to ignore this tacit understanding and brings Zhou to book, he will enjoy support from the people but will face stiff opposition from his peers within the ruling caucus. This is because once the last line of defence is removed, too many senior officials would be in trouble.
Thus Xi is caught in a dilemma. A Chinese observer puts it vividly: It is not Xi who determines the fate of Zhou, but the other way round.