Outside of China, only experts are familiar with Zhou Yong Kang. His last name is one of the infinite Zhou whose image recalls anonymous dark clothing, black hair, a serious expression, and the absence of smiles. He’s not different from the other permanent members of the Chinese Communist Party’s central political office. He found a position of excellence in the old lexicon of the Comintern. His political career was long and spectacular, to the point of becoming minister of security from 2002 until 2007, and then being promoted to the heaven of the 9 most powerful men in China. They each carried the weight of 150 million Chinese people on their shoulders. Zhou was the policeman and the judge, responsible for order, law, censure, and internal affairs. His power was immense, he commanded an unlimited budget, and had to respect very few rules. The fates of bureaucrats and citizens depended on him, as well as the existence of social networks, gags on intellectuals, and the ax on minorities. He answered to the Secretary General, but only if he really had to.
The new leader, Xi Jin Ping, excluded him from the new political office created by the most recent congress in 2012, and took away his most effective source of protection: the possibility to name his successor. In a show of power, he even reduced the number of permanent members to 7, each of whom now bears the weight of 200 million Chinese people. Zhou’s political career ended on July 29, 2013, when the party launched an investigation against him for “suspected violations of discipline,” the code used for corruption. The significance of the expression should not be confusing; in China, there’s never a contradiction between postponing judgment and a verdict. The sentence has already been written: for Zhou, an investigation is the kiss of death. For many years, suspicions have been multiplying regarding his illicit earnings, the transfer of illegal funds overseas, the favoritism of businesses he controlled, and the privileges his family enjoyed. Zhou had extended his tentacles to the oil and gas industry, construction, government procurement, and military contracts. It seemed like the untouchability of the party’s most powerful leaders also applied to him, a recognized but obviously unspoken immunity, a pact of solidarity: when you arrive at the apex of power, you’re above the law. The CPC’s almost hundred-year history had never recorded corruption charges against one of its leaders. The last expulsion occurred in 1989 when Secretary Zhao Zi Yang was removed for not wanting to send tanks into Tiananmen Square. Before him, only the Gang of Four had been charged, in 1976. The accusations were nobler and more tragic: factionalism, revisionism, and ceding to enemies of the state. Corruption was a second-tier offense, absent in Socialism by definition. They were accused of taking the wrong political stance, not of enriching themselves illegally. The condemnation was for accruing power, not money. Zhou is paying for taking the wrong side: he protected Bo Xi Lai’s rising star, the powerful ex-governor of Chongqing, now serving life in prison for a squalid murder story, familial interests, and obviously corruption. The status of the two accused—Zhou and Bo—has made their cases sensational, classifying them as repeat of Maoist purges. In effect, the comments only graze the tip of the iceberg. Xi made the fight against corruption his piece de resistance. The results up to now have been surprising and encouraging. Combining party sources, it’s estimated that more than 200,000 officials have been punished since 2013, including ministers, local leaders, and provincial managers. Almost 70 of them have committed suicide. The collateral damage has been declining luxury goods sales, a tangible sign of gifts and clientele. Why did the CPC take on such a serious fight? When will it end? Will it create instability? These questions cannot be answered with monosyllables, but only by describing the complexities of the situation.
1) Unsustainable situation. Corruption represents the pinnacle of socialist contradictions; it is the emblem separating governors and the governed. The first leaders accumulated power but not prestige; they intercepted the advantages of globalization between inequality and social disparities. Today, China is incommensurately more wealthy, but certainly more unequal. The Gini coefficient, which measures the distribution of wealth, is higher than average, even higher than in the US, the temple of capitalism. It is not only the consequence of economic development, but also the cause. It is the source of appropriation, an intervention on a huge river of money that found attractive outlets with impunity. One should not have the illusion that corruption is a new phenomenon. It is tied to power, especially in a monocratic country with practically no checks and balances like China. It’s novel for two reasons: its entity and the protests that it generated. Anyone who expected that progress would lead to democracy or transparent administrations needs to reconsider. Today, the 85 million people registered to the Communist Party, which is to say 6% of the population, guide China. New, emerging social classes have been admitted to the party: entrepreneurs, intellectuals, patriots, and anyone that holds China’s rebirth dear. The antiquated selection of laborers and farmers is an obstacle of the past. Now, people join the party to create and distribute social wealth. They have the power of privilege, access to reserved information and opaque financial channels, and contempt for the farmers’ sacrifices. It’s an admission and armor. The Party intervenes before it’s too late and someone exaggerates. The threshold of tolerability has probably been surpassed because the truth can no longer be hidden by silence or propaganda. Social networks are ruthless; the government actually supports journalists in uncovering illegal activities. The inexplicably high standards of living, the nomenklatura’s children studying and drinking champagne at foreign universities, and daily clashes with the obtuse bureaucracy are blatant. Poor people are not threatening society, it’s the excluded, the people that are aware of the injustices, and rebel. China is notoriously stable, a point of reference for every country that wants to grow harmoniously. And yet the protests are increasing. According to human rights organizations in Hong Kong, clashes with law enforcement, while still limited, grew to 160,000 in 2013. Fighting corruption means saving the country, at least the CPC’s guidance function. The Party founder’s extracted the “mandate of heaven” from history to govern; they don’t want to lose it over the recent news stories. Xi Jin Ping worked in political office with Zhou Yong Kang for many years. Xi shared the most important decisions and confronted titanic problems with him. He couldn’t not know what he’s only repressing today. If Xi won’t protect Zhou anymore, it means the situation is objectively difficult and indefensible. For the first time in history, The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection did not call Zhou “comrade” when they placed him under investigation.
2) A single man at the helm. Xi chose an impassible road for winning charisma. His pedigree is ideal, his past devoid of suspicion, and his family far beyond criticism. The anti-corruption crusade paints him as a strong and good man, capable of hearing the protests and maintaining the country’s equilibrium. His determination seems genuine, an indistinguishable mix of choice and necessity. For now, he’s able to represent both the government and the opposition. He needs to fight the corrupt in order to show and strengthen his muscles. He behaves the same way in the international arena, when he reignites China’s ambitions in the South China Sea, heedless of Japan, the US, and 10 ASEAN countries’ resistance. He’s growing public consensus in his favor; he’s married good governing with growth, global respect, and nationalism. He needs it because the CPC’s secretary—the second most powerful man in the world on paper—is relatively weak. His appointment doesn’t echo the tragic political battles of the past, where the winners ended up in government and the losers in reeducation camps. That part of China’s history, which ended 25 years ago at Tiananmen Square, produced enormous tensions that globalization cannot accommodate. China needs to be stable and unified in its progress, and the defeat of underdevelopment. For this reason the Party leader is the synthesis of various opinions—or rather—different interests. He is the best man for an already delineated journey established in the hallways before the National Congress. China’s necessities have marked policy for some time. A helmsman is not necessary as much as an astute automatic pilot. For this reason, contradictions were concealed, scandals covered up, and corruption fenced in. Today, this is no longer possible. Despite his leeway being restricted, the Secretary has decided to run some risks, pitting himself against a good fraction of the Party that he guides. It’s a signal of alarm and sign of courage. When the crisis struck in 2008, Beijing injected the astronomical sum of $586 billion into the system to give breath to global demand, which had been weakened by the collapse of exports. The intent was to promote consumption and investments in technology to improve the productive apparatus and render it immune to international crises outside the country’s control. And yet, the results were disappointing. The river of money went in different directions, the easiest routes to guaranteed profits. Local governments, increasingly independent from the capital, increased land requisitions, irrational subdivisions, and consequently inflating the housing bubble. Financing for companies arrived bit by bit, while the grey operations of shadow banking continued. Politically protected state-owned enterprises continued to evade taxes and maintain profits. China has reached dizzying records, but always quantitatively: immense, and sometimes useless, quantities of steel, glass, cement, and footwear. Can the biggest economy in the world (albeit at purchasing power parity) ignore the capital’s directives? Can a society regulated by Confucian discipline and democratic centralism ignore instructions? The answer is no, beyond any shadow of a doubt. For this reason, Xi is fighting corruption, to have a stronger and more cohesive party. If he can’t eradicate it, he at least plans on reducing and controlling it.
3) Gorbachev effect? What is the most serious danger? Not being able to distinguish good from bad, and therefore throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If corruption is endemic, fighting it means undermining the foundations of the organization that generated it. Putting guilty leaders behind bars could instigate vendettas, retaliations, and temporary and convenient alliances. All this could happen if corruption isn’t removable but a vital component of retaining power. China knows very well that revolutions frequently destroy their children, that the police’s omnipotence—from Robespierre to Beria—is short-lived; politics will retake command. This is why the specter circulating in Beijing always belongs to Gorbachev. In the eyes of the Chinese, the ex-secretary of the CPSU destroyed the biggest communist country and most powerful party in the world. He hoped to reform an un-reformable system; he attempted to implement democracy in a country that wasn’t ready. He was moved by noble ideals, but history proved him wrong. China responded analogously: economic freedom and political closure, the possibility to get rich but not dissent. In 1989, Chinese students who applauded his ambitions and fought against corruption invoked Gorbachev. The military repressed everything in Moscow and Beijing. The problems were too great to be resolved. Chinese leaders proved to be more shrewd and longsighted than the Soviets. They only faced aspects they could control, like growth and the attraction of capital. They postponed reforming the institutional system, democracy, and a multiparty system sine die. They changed politics with a spectacular U-turn, but they kept the symbols and apparatus of the past. The system resulting from repression worked for 25 years. Now, it faces new challenges, but the danger of failing hovers menacingly. The fight against corruption is a milestone to strengthen China. Xi Jin Ping seems determined to move forward as long as he can, and as long as the precipice is kept at a safe distance.