Last weekend, Chinese media announced that former security chief and oil baron Zhou Yongkang (pictured) has been expelled from the Communist Party and now awaits trial. As the highest-level person to have been affected by President Xi's anti-corruption campaign, his downfall ranks with that of former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai.
The unusually transparent trial of Bo Xilai in 2013 exposed China and the world to extraordinarily sordid tales of corruption and rivalry across generations of powerful elites. Never before had details of such scandal so close to the top of the Party been revealed. However, despite the revelations over the weekend that someone as central to the Party’s operations as Zhou has been is steeped in intrigue, the Chinese public does not seem to have concluded that the problem may be more insidious than several isolated cases, but could rather suggest that the Chinese Party-state system itself may depend on networks of favour and privilege that go beyond what is culturally acceptable.
In China, the state, Party, and people are conflated into one symbiotic entity, rather than understood as forces in tension, as in Western political systems, so most Chinese retain a powerfully abiding belief in their political system and its fundamental appropriateness for China.
Zhou's corruption was presented in the Chinese media as the sin of an irredeemably corrupt individual, part of a 'cancer that has invaded the Party's healthy tissue', as the People's Daily, the Party's main newspaper, put it on Saturday.
The sanctity of the Party or the system as a whole was never questioned. Indeed, as John Garnaut notes in his book on the downfall of Bo Xilai, 'in the logic of Communist Party politics, a fulsome purge can provide the Party with the internal enemy it requires to rally itself against'. As the People's Daily went on to say, 'we must use investigating and dealing with Zhou Yongkang's grave violations to thoroughly advance the struggle against corruption.'
Zhou Yongkang's misdemeanours are extensive. According to China's Xinhua news agency, Zhou seriously violated the Party's political, organisational and confidentiality discipline; took advantage of his posts to seek profits for others and accepted huge bribes personally and through his family; abused his power to help relatives, mistresses and friends make huge profits from operating businesses, resulting in serious losses of state-owned assets; leaked the Party's and country's secrets; seriously violated self-disciplinary regulations; accepted a large amount of money and properties personally and through his family; and (similar to the accusations leveled against Bo), committed adultery with a number of women and traded his power for sex and money. Other clues of suspected crimes by Zhou were also found during the investigation, according to Xinhua.
As Foreign Policy argues, Zhou's expulsion betrays severe corruption at the highest levels of the Party. It also suggests factional rivalries behind the scenes. Chinese media reportage has been scathing, noting that Zhou's actions have caused significant damage to the image of the Party, and losses for the people. Foreign Policy also notes that, while Zhou's ousting is presented as essential for the long-term health of the Party, the revelations could also anger the public by showing that the shocking exploits of high level Party officials and the abuse of government power was not limited to a handful of individuals.
Yet the acknowledgement by Chinese state media of the damage to the image of the Party and the losses for the people suggests that the revelations of egregious corruption among Party officials do not lead the Chinese people to become disillusioned with the system.
Rather, the narrative is of the people and the Party co-existing as one symbiotic entity. The Party, state, country, and people are not rival forces but facets of the whole. What is bad for one element is bad for the others, and for the system overall. As Frank Pieke has argued, in China it is not helpful to see the Party and the people separately; in fact, the people are the state. Therefore it is not really 'thinkable' for the Chinese people to see these cases of corruption as symptomatic of fundamental systemic problems. In the Chinese common sense, the cancer of corruption is invading the pure body of the Party-state, the cancer must be cured, and the Party-state can and will recover.
As such, revelations of corruption and the expulsion of high-level officials like Zhou may actually galvanise even more loyalty and commitment to the Party-state system.