Why should we care? After all, this is a man who retired 18 months ago and who even most Chinese wouldn’t recognise. If he’s come unstuck in the kind of palace politics he once played so well, his prison cell will be no worse than those he forced so many others into during his years running a brutal security system.
But stand back from the hens and the ducks and listen to the deafening silence from Party high command. Zhou Yongkang’s story goes to the heart of China’s stability and reform momentum. The fight to bring him down is the politics to watch.
Zhou Yongkang’s career is a Chinese style rags-to-riches fairytale.
His family were hard-pressed farmers who fished for eels to supplement their income. The parents encouraged their three sons to study and the eldest repaid them by going to university and becoming an oil engineer. He accelerated through Party ranks to run China’s biggest oil company and then a province of 80 million, crowning his career with a seat at the Party’s top table and control of the vast internal security apparatus.
Beyond his home village, he could never have claimed to be the most loved man in China but until 18 months ago he could claim to be the most feared.
At that point Zhou’s luck changed. Xi Jinping took up the leadership of the Communist Party and announced a campaign against corruption. A war on “tigers as well as flies”, he warned.
Zhou Yongkang is his chosen tiger. But why go looking for a fight with a dangerous predator?
Taking on the tiger
“Three reasons,” says political analyst Deng Yuwen.
We were talking over a game of ‘go’, the board game of black and white stones that strategists have been playing for 2,000 years because it sharpens their wits for the real game of politics.
“The first reason for taking on this tiger is to consolidate power and gain respect.
“The second is to push forward reform. There are lots of powerful people in government whose wealth is not clean, and they all have a vested interest in the status quo.
“If you want to reform the economy now, you have to find a place to break through their lines. Zhou Yongkang is that place.
“The third reason is to improve the image of the Communist Party.”
This all makes sense to me.
On consolidating power, China’s one-party political cycle offers no electoral mandate to an incoming president. Taking out a rival with a corruption trial clears space for one’s own people and policies.
Reform also adds up. After a decade of delaying vital changes, China needs political direction.
The incoming leadership seems resolved to restructure an economic model which has seen stunning growth for 30 years but which most agree is unsustainable. One of the most unsustainable things about it is the stranglehold of state behemoths in key sectors, many of them controlled by the Party elite. Remove them and Xi has room to reform. Witness the purge of Zhou Yongkang’s placemen from the oil and gas industry over recent months.
As for improving the image of the Communist Party, this, too, is urgent.
It’s hard to exaggerate the depth of public cynicism about the political class. We’re not talking about a Westminster expenses scandal over the odd duck house or extra apartment. As the Chinese economy has surged, senior Party officials have used their monopoly on power to plunder billions from the public purse, many hiding their fortunes in offshore accounts and foreign assets.
In Zhou Yongkang’s case, the respected financial journal Caixin has traced a web of business interests which it says made the Zhous spectacularly rich.
Now assets have been seized. Family members, drivers, bodyguards, secretaries and proteges have all been detained.
While Zhou Yongkang’s name is unspoken in the media, there is an almost daily scandal feed about allies from his networks of influence, whether in the energy sector, in Sichuan province or in the security system.
“Xi is plucking the fur from the tiger,” says Deng Yuwen, sweeping one of my poorly-defended troop formations from the go board as if to demonstrate how it’s done.