The upcoming trial of ousted Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai was expected to bring the country's ongoing political drama to an end, but speculation over the fate of Zhou, the retired Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of security affairs and a much more powerful figure, has again surfaced. Duowei, a prominent news website focused on Chinese politics and believed to have sources within the Chinese government, recently published a series of articles warning of the possible investigation against Zhou. The articles brought attention to the recent crackdown against a number of local officials and businessmen believed to be associated with Zhou in his power base of Sichuan province, as well as the arrest of a few of Zhou's close aides.
These developments suggest that Zhou, too, will soon be under heavier scrutiny if he is not already. On Aug. 11, Duowei published an "exclusive" report claiming that a consensus had been reached among the top leadership during the Beidaihe conference and that formal action against Zhou will be announced in the coming weeks. Although the article was taken down the next day, the leak soon spread through other media outlets.
Given the extreme secrecy and unpredictability of Chinese politics, such reports should always be viewed with skepticism until borne out by events. Nonetheless, the various websites that traffic in rumors — mostly based in Hong Kong and the United States — have proved to be a useful source of information outside the strictly censored Chinese media. In some cases, rumors were even suspected of being intentionally leaked by Beijing or certain political elements for political purposes. The fact that some of Duowei's coverage of previous rumors has turned out to be accurate has raised the profile of the U.S.-based outlet, which is known for its relatively neutral reporting as well as its reliable and diversified sources on China's internal politics.
While the investigation into his activities is no more than speculation at the moment, rumors have surrounded Zhou for years. Indeed, he is widely suspected among the Chinese public of being extremely corrupt, and public grievances over the management of the country's social tensions during his tenure as security chief leading the Central Political and Legislative Committee from 2007 to 2012 were serious enough to prompt speculation that he could be dismissed from his post. This speculation was particularly prevalent in 2012 following the Bo Xilai scandal, in part due to Zhou's vocal support for Bo's controversial policies and allegations of a political conspiracy between the two. However, despite some rumors suggesting that secret investigations were carried out against him, Zhou managed to step down quietly during the leadership transition in November 2012.
Whether the new rumored investigation takes place or not, it has brought the former security chief again into the spotlight amid the new leadership's massive anti-corruption campaign. For a long time, despite periodic crackdowns on Party corruption to refresh its legitimacy, the Party maintained an unspoken rule that members of the powerful Standing Committee are essentially immune from prosecution. In part, this was intended to distance the highest authorities from the entrenched power networks and political infighting and ensure the political stability and continuity of the overall system. Nonetheless, the immunity from judicial charges was widely blamed for enabling misbehavior and allowing top leaders to gain greater privileges.
Since Xi and his new administration came to power, the crackdown against corrupt officials was deemed essential to the Party's survival amid soaring public grievances and discontent. This approach was encapsulated by the phrase repeatedly invoked by Xi that the government would be "attacking the big tiger but not letting small flies escape" — meaning that no official, no matter how high or low their position, will be above the law. Still, the campaign was met with widespread public doubts about how aggressive the government was willing to be, particularly against the "big tigers" who could jeopardize the government's internal networks of influence and wider political stability.
The government could be planning to make an example of Zhou by investigating him and proving to the public that it is serious about the anti-corruption campaign while also reshaping the expectation of its high-level officials. Zhou could make a particularly appealing target for several reasons. For example, he is now retired, which has curtailed his influence and his ability to cause significant political instability. His legacy has been tarnished by the Bo scandal, among others, and he never enjoyed the level of popular support Bo did even before his retirement.
While Zhou's fate remains unclear, the recent crackdowns may signal that the Party is moving to further dilute Zhou's influence and deter those who remain in power. Since December 2012, the anti-corruption drive had led to the arrest or expulsion of at least 10 entrepreneurs and provincial and municipal officials in Sichuan province, where Zhou ruled as Party secretary between 1999 and 2002, following the arrest of deputy chief Li Chuncheng, who was reportedly a close aide to Zhou. Other prominent figures arrested included Sichuan Literary Federation Chairman Guo Yongxiang, who was Zhou's secretary for 18 years; former Hubei Politics and Law Committee Secretary Wu Yongwen, Zhou's close confidant during his tenure as security chief; and Wu Bing, an aide to Zhou's son, who is expected to succeed Zhou as a major player in the country's oil industry, which Zhou used to launch his political career.
Like those of other presidents, Xi's ultimate goal is to make examples of flagrant offenders or political enemies and thus consolidate power within the ranks of officialdom, making sure that party cadres are falling in line with Beijing while at the same time bolstering public support. For this, the Party's anti-corruption drive must be carefully managed in order to prevent it from spiraling out of control. With the Party's desire to demonstrate genuine concern over anti-corruption as it struggles to preserve its legitimacy, moves against Zhou could also risk reinforcing the public's skepticism over the Communist Party's political infighting and disorganization as the Party struggles with other, more immediate economic and social pressures.