The life sentence handed to Zhou Yongkang on Thursday shows that President Xi Jinping’s high-stakes program to rid himself of opposition and to centralize power in the Chinese party-state is proceeding apace.
Mr. Zhou, once a figure of immense clout and wealth, had previously been a Politburo standing committee member, head of state security, and general manager of the oil giant China National Petroleum. He was convicted Thursday by a court in Tianjin of graft and abuse of power.
But unofficially he was the No. 2 figure and the “muscle” in the main alternative faction to Mr. Xi. The leader of that faction, former Politburo member Bo Xilai, is now also serving a life sentence after being convicted in 2013 for embezzlement in a high-profile trial.
“Zhou's arrest and verdict goes deeper than policy logic. He was part of a security apparatus that had become too powerful,” argues Edward Friedman, China expert at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "Together with Bo, they represented a threat to the center."
At one point Mr. Bo and Zhou ran a many-tentacled empire that often acted as a parallel government in parts of China. The BBC reports that Zhou’s family has accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars that is now subject to state seizure as a result of his conviction.
On state TV, Zhou appeared briefly to confess to his crimes. He looked beaten, his hair graying, in contrast to the jet-black hair dye in common use by Chinese leaders. “I broke the law and party rules incessantly… resulting in grave losses of the party and the nation,” Zhou said. He pled guilty to taking $118,000 in bribes, according to Xinhua.
Xi in the past year has cracked down on “tigers and flies” – big and small figures – as part of a popular anti-corruption campaign seen by many analysts as a soft purge of Xi’s enemies. Zhou is "the biggest target to fall in Xi's drive to end the longstanding culture of bribe taking and influence peddling," according to the Associated Press.
Zhou was arrested last July, the first major party figure to be subject to prosecution in decades; Gen. Xu Caihou, a powerful military figure, as well as scores of other regional party chiefs, tycoons and state leaders were also rounded up or are under investigation.
Xi’s bold play is seen as an effort to reestablish party preeminence at a time when wealth, patronage, and opportunists appears to have run amok in China and threatened its stability. His ascension to China's top job in 2013 has effectively upended a decades-old model of “collective leadership” among Politburo members.
Xi first emerged as an almost folksy man of the people who eats jaozi or dumplings, stays in modest hotels, and has a reassuring baritone voice. Yet when the top six Politburo ministries were remade in 2012, including national security, finance, military, and reform – Xi headed them all.
“Xi is operating as an emperor,” says Prof. Friedman. “But ‘emperor’ in China is now an institution, not a person. ‘Xi’ is an institution.”
While Xi's anti-corruption campaign may be a way of ridding himself of competition, it has also proved enormously popular among an aspirant, hard-working middle-class who resent Communist cadres' excesses of wealth, vice, and luxury. Xi has coined the phrase "China dream" to match the aspirations of ordinary Chinese citizens. Party members not loyal to traditional values and orthodox party ideas are less tolerated.
Among China watchers the big question is whether Xi has captured so many tigers and flies that he could set in motion a backlash against him, or trigger other unintended consequences. David Shambaugh, a veteran China scholar at George Washington University, wrote an essay earlier this year entitled "The Coming Chinese Crackup" that took up in part this question, suggesting a crisis could be sooner rather than later, though that view is controversial among scholars.