On the face of it, China turned a critical corner for a country on Tuesday. Zhou Yongkang, who had been on the all-powerful Politburo and was recently head of internal security, was accused of “serious violations of discipline,” which are code words for corruption. Perhaps now Chinese leaders have finally decided that the ruling party is not above the law or any person beyond its reach.
“This is the highest-ranking official ever to be probed since China’s  founding,” proclaimed the party’s newspaper, the People’s Daily.
This hope that China might soon be ruled by universal principles of governance – regardless of who holds power – was reinforced by another announcement on the same day: The theme for the party’s regular gathering in October will be “rule of law” – a first for a party plenum.
Yet both announcements, as promising as they might be, must be taken with an ounce of soy sauce.
For one, Mr. Zhou faces charges only before a party panel. It is not clear if he will be tried in a court of law and even then, one that is independent and operates with transparency and fairness. A New York Times investigation has linked Zhou and his family to at least $160 million in personal wealth. His whereabouts remain top secret. And a court trial last year of one of his lower-level allies, Bo Xilai, on corruption charges was more a mockery than a model of justice.
Two, it is also unclear whether an anticorruption campaign being waged by party leader Xi Jinping is merely a way to consolidate power and unify the party in preparation for making difficult reforms of a troubled economy. The probe of Zhou’s “violations” not only nails a senior leader but also rids Mr. Xi of a potential rival who might challenge the expected reforms.
Three, public disgust over official corruption is so high that Xi has been under pressure to show he is willing to go after high-ranking “tigers” as well as low-ranking “flies,” as the Chinese put it. Zhou is a big tiger. Yet Xi may need to restrain this campaign if it exposes too much rot in a party known for systemic corruption.
Four, despite the new accent on rule of law, the party hedges its words carefully. Rule of law is necessary only “to raise the party’s administration capability.” And in an internal document last year, the party called on the official media to avoid using such concepts as citizens’ rights, universal values, and constitutional democracy.
It would be difficult to have rule of law without those ideals in play.
And finally, the party has been jailing many activists campaigning against official corruption and for rule of law. The crackdown only exposes the contradiction between the party’s authoritarian ways and the wording of the 1982 Constitution. That document clearly states: “No organization or individual may enjoy the privilege of being above the Constitution and the law.”
A political party that has long seen itself as the singular bearer of correct ideology perhaps may know in its collective gut that a modernizing China needs rule of law rather than rule by party. But the leaders aren’t ready yet to give up their perks or accept that corruption is only fed by their monopoly on power.
Many Chinese, especially business leaders, are demanding a government that can be held accountable. China is a long way from doing that through elections. But the party for now at least speaks of living under rule of law, something far more absolute than rule by persons who have long made themselves immune from official scrutiny – at least until charges were made against Zhou.