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The Rise and Fall of China's Security Czar
Zhou Yongkang's legacy
You can watch the video for this one below:
Author’s note: When writing this, I wanted to make it clear to the reader that even if Zhou’s fall from grace were to be some form of persecution, nobody should feel sorry for him.
Another thing that I did not get much time to talk a bit on was more of the actual work Zhou did in reforming the Chinese police.
The key tension with the CCP is that the police are the front line in enforcing Party rule. Just like with American politicians, CCP officials get nervous whenever crime rates start to rise. A city mayor in the midst of a crime wave soon gets voted out. It is the same as in China. The police of course are never going to challenge the Party’s monopoly to power, but oh you know, never know what might happen if a bunch of robberies were allowed to take place … Thus, the police leverage that position to get what they want - and that often can lead to corruption.
Zhou tried to reform the police in three ways. The first is the budget. As a top Party official, he brought unprecedented funds to the police budgets. In return, the police had to cut down on their “extracurricular activities”. Namely, the extortion.
The second had to do with the way that he centralized the recruitment and appointments of high level police officers. Local governments and police forces are no longer able to make recruiting decisions on their police forces. That is now sent to the provincial governments.
And finally, Zhou assimilated the police chiefs into the Party itself. He announced that the chief of police had to always be a core member of the provincial CCP committee. This undoes 70s-era reforms that had tried to keep the Chief of Police a career policeman and keep the Party out of the rest of the legal and policing infrastructure. At the time this had been praised for moving towards a better rule-of-law society, but on the ground it was discovered that if police forces did not have a voice in policy making and budget setting then they will not get the money they need.
Now of course in undoing this reform, you have to wonder if the Party is now working with the Police, then who is going to police the police? But I suppose it’s a question that other areas like Hong Kong have faced. The answer is simple to say, harder to do.
Oh by the way, I have an Asianometry Patreon now. As with many things, it is going to start slow but I want to be able to use it to preview videos, share smaller essays on current events, and more. Take a look and would appreciate any help you can provide for the channel.
In 2007, Zhou Yongkang reached the pinnacle of power in the Chinese Communist Party. He had ascended to the Politburo Standing Committee.
Furthermore, he had gathered under his portfolio some of the most powerful segments of Chinese society. Throughout his rise to power, he had consolidated deep links within China’s energy industry and its titanic internal security force. China’s police force and law enforcement apparatus. It all answered to him.
And then it was gone. His network fell apart bit by bit - until finally Zhou was ejected from the CCP and jailed.
Zhou Yongkang was not a princeling, which means his mother or father wasn’t an early ranking member of the Party. His family was poor but the government paid for a decent education and he excelled. He would eventually go to a prestigious university studying petroleum engineering. There, he joined the Party in November 1964 during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
He soon came to manage a large group of petroleum exploration engineers at one of China’s biggest oil fields. His star rose as he showed competence. Eventually he got the job of managing the whole field - and with it, the town of Panjin.
After two years, he went to Beijing to serve as the Deputy Minister of Petroleum Industry. During economic reform, this department was turned into China National Petroleum Company, one of the two major state owned companies at the heart of China’s energy industry.
He helped grow the company by fueling China’s insatiable need for oil. He helped CNPC go international - managing projects in the Sudan and Kazakhstan. And he networked hard. He put friends and allies into powerful places, which in turn helped build his own power.
His oil success and constant networking would give him a seat at the Central Committee in 1997 and make him one of the 200 most powerful men in China.
The Party frequently fast tracks its best members by putting them in progressively larger roles. The Party decided to test him in 1999 by making him Party Secretary of the Sichuan province.
This made him the top politician in a vast province of 81 million. Sichuan has more people than a vast majority of countries.
Usually as a comrade with a promising future when they give you a plum position like this one then the best thing you can do is to stick close to the Party line and make sure nothing goes spectacularly wrong. You got your position because you got good friends up high and they went to bat for you. Don’t make them look bad.
As Sichuan Party Secretary, Zhou Yongkang had checked off all the boxes when it comes to being a good Party member.
He delivered good economic growth for his province. He followed the Party line and did not make trouble for his patrons. He crushed any dissidents as well as the Falun Gong. He maintained order in the population.
## Internal Security and Politburo Standing Committee
Upon the completion of his time governing Sichuan, Zhou returned to Beijing. At the 16th Party Congress in 2002, he became the Minister of Public Security, a member of the Poliburo, and joined the powerful Chinese security apparatus.
He arrived at the right time. The Chinese government a few years prior completed a bruising restructuring of its state owned companies. Thousands were laid off.
China was getting rich but as Deng said, some people were getting rich way faster than the others. Such inequality sparked massive protests amongst the people - “mass incidents” or social protests.
As a member of the Poliburo and a Minister of Public Security, he reformed the police forces. Up until then, internal security had seen under-investment in the country, with the number of police per 100,000 population near the bottom of a 2009 UN ranking and far behind the United States.
A number of shocking police scandals in the media had tarnished the people's trust in the police. Many Chinese police forces found themselves vastly underpaid and resorted to ... alternative methods to get paid.
As minister, Zhou pushed through several reforms in the police force. He increased the budget and elevated the political status of the police chiefs within the Party. Many police chiefs had to join the Party and he was known for holding mass study sessions where police officers received political education. He greatly centralized police recruitment on a local level, overruling local CCP affiliates (and ruffling some feathers).
In 2007, Zhou had pleased enough of the Party higher ups to be approved for ascension into the Politburo Standing Committee, replacing the vacancy opened up by Luo Gan's retirement. Zhou now found himself at the pinnacle of power in China.
He would continue his reforms of the domestic security system in China. With him at the helm, China's security budget rose to new heights. In 2011, China's internal security budget exceeded its military budget for the first time in history ($100 billion against $95 billion).
Immensely powerful and living in the shadows, Zhou Yongkang grew to oversee a portfolio that rivaled anyone else in the country. It created a vast roster of enemies and rich opportunities for corruption.
The Fall of Zhou
Zhou's downfall began with when a subordinate of his protege Bo Xilai made an unexpected visit to the US Consulate in Chengdu. The resulting embarrassment and loss of face (not to mention all the corruption he did indeed do) would be his downfall.
As the son of esteemed CCP member Bo Yibo, Bo Xilai had risen to prominence as the Party Secretary of Chongqing. He gained special notoriety on the back of a throwback Maoist style campaign that made him personally powerful and others uncomfortable.
Zhou was said to be close to Bo, and the rumor is that Zhou wanted Bo to succeed him on the Standing Committee upon retirement. It was presumed that Zhou - with his connections to the Sichuan province - was the patron elevating Bo to the Chongqing party secretary.
Bo Xilai has his own dramatic story, but the gist of it is that when his trusted police chief Wang Lijun sought political asylum at the US Consulate, it sparked an international incident and a panic within the CCP.
This as well as the apparent murder of a British national by Bo's wife was seen as sufficient to eject Bo from the Communist Party.
In February 2012, the Politiburo Standing Committee discussed his removal and eight of the nine voted for detainment. Zhou was the only dissenting vote. Zhou then made the critical error of tipping Bo off about the coming fire - committing the crime of leaking state secrets.
Rolling up the Tiger
The CCP's style for purging higher level members is to first roll up their network of patrons. This dates back to the Mao era, when Mao would first purge members like Deng Xiaoping en route to the ultimate target of Liu Shaoqi.
Zhou's status as a former member of the Standing Committee did not protect him from purge. Slowly, the anti-corruption agency CCDI, led by Xi Jinping’s close associate and "House of Cards" fan Wang Qishan, targeted the members of Zhou's circles. This includes China Petroleum CEO Jiang Jiemin, former personal secretary Ji Wenlin, and former Sichuan party deputy secretary Li Chuncheng.
When the day finally came for Zhou himself, there was little that he could do. He made a few small appearances post-retirement. At each of them, he toed the Party line, asking the people to follow the leadership of Xi Jinping and the China Dream. In April 2013, he visited the village at which he grew up and supposedly said: "This may be the last time I come to visit everyone".
June 2014, the CCDI officially opened up the case against Zhou. In December 2014, he was declared guilty and expelled from the Party.
Zhou was handed over to the state legal system - the one he once managed - and was found guilty of graft. The trial happened behind closed doors (unlike the Bo Xilai one) and the verdict was swift: Lifetime imprisonment. Zhou pled guilty and showed little resistance:
"They tried to bribe my family, but really they were after my power. I should assume major responsibility for this."
Zhou's family were also tried and their assets seized. This includes his son Zhou Bin (18 years in prison) and second wife (9 years).
Western media called the trial of Zhou Yongkang a purge of Xi Jinping's political enemies. Chinese media raged against this and said that this was just an example of Xi's attempt to clean up the Party and restore its credibility in the eyes of the public.
I don't think that the two are mutually exclusive. Zhou Yongkang was extremely powerful, being in charge of vast parts of the country's apparatus. He apparently did not take to Xi Jinping's appointment as Party General Secretary. The Wang Lijun incident made it possible to remove him, so I think Xi took the opportunity.
But at the same time, I don't think anyone will argue that Zhou Yongkang wasn't profoundly corrupt. His rise through the ranks made him astoundingly rich - reports say that the Party seized assets worth some $14-16 billion (including some 326 residences across China and 647 foreign exchange accounts).
And we shouldn’t discount the victims of the reformed policies that he oversaw. His reign of power saw the rise of private security forces and renewed reports of police brutality. You can argue that China needed reform of its police, but Zhou took it in a direction that even the Party realized needed backtracking. And so it happened with the next Standing Committee, which didn’t see any representative of the internal security forces.
Zhou’s story is fascinating to me because of the wide breadth of his power and influence. Energy and security are two different but incredibly strategic fields. One man somehow gained control of them. And then on the back of his own corruption and the will of the Party he lost it.