China’s Power Politics

The four Chinese characters that heralded President Xi Jinping’s war against corruption in a speech by a political ally in December 2011 can easily lose impact in translation. “Life-and-death struggle,” while idiomatic in English, is too passive. “Do-or-die” lacks the necessary intent.

“The crude, word-for-word translation better captures the essence,” said Charles Qin, a professional translator. “You die, I live.”

At first glance, the July 29 statement that Zhou Yongkang, a former security chief with motley skin and toad-like jowls, was under investigation was hardly news at all. There had been more than 18 months of furious speculation as cronies, relatives and then Mr. Zhou himself had disappeared.

But to Mr. Xi and his closest supporters the official statement was a declaration of victory in the first phase of their protracted war to save the Communist Party from what they see as terminal decay. For them, the dual objectives of cleaning up the party of corruption and building unassailable personal power are inseparable and mutually reinforcing.

Mr. Xi was raised in a you-die-I-live world where leaders who failed to destroy potential rivals were constantly at risk of losing far more than their jobs. Stalin used bullets to keep such threats at bay. Mao preferred public humiliation and torture behind closed doors.

Even Deng Xiaoping, the exalted economic reformer, used long sessions of harrowing criticism to destroy the officials he was discarding, before locking them in their houses or leaving them in living purgatory at their desks. Effective leaders also found that rolling purges were useful tools for instilling ideological discipline and keeping cadres on their toes.

Gradually, the weaker leaders who rose after the massacres and purges of 1989 extended a bargain of market opportunity and immunity to one another, as they worked to fuse the post-communist Communist Party back together following the Tiananmen crackdown.

Stability prevailed but so too did corruption. Bureaucracies and state-owned companies became empires unto themselves. Leaders’ families grew fabulously rich. The compact of market opportunity and political immunity held for members of the Politburo Standing Committee for 25 years, until Mr. Xi tore it up late last month.

Mr. Zhou, a member of the previous administration’s Politburo Standing Committee, is the highest-ranking leader to have been officially purged since 1989. He controlled the country’s police, justice system and intelligence agencies at a time when official domestic security spending outgrew the defense budget. He was also a godfather-type figure to China’s vast petroleum industry.

While Mr. Zhou is Mr. Xi’s biggest and most recent target, just a month earlier, on June 30, Gen. Xu Caihou, formerly the most powerful figure in the People’s Liberation Army, was handed over to prosecutors to face charges of corruption. Only now, with both men officially destroyed, can Mr. Xi safely say that he is in control of a system where power still flows from the barrel of a gun.

General Xu will probably be courtmartialed for bribes allegedly received in exchange for promotions, and Mr. Zhou will be tried in connection with the massive empire that his relatives built on the back of inside oil deals. But behind closed doors, they may also be accused of political transgressions like conspiring to protect the first Politburo “tiger” who was in Mr. Xi’s sites: the former Chonqging party boss Bo Xilai, whose rising political power was seen as a threat to Mr. Xi before he was sentenced to life in prison last year for corruption and abuse of power.

Each of these three men — the police chief, the general and the potential challenger — were very badly behaved and dangerously capable of mobilizing political power to serve their own needs. They were three “tigers” who were guarding an edifice of patronage, money and potential violence that had been developing for 25 years.

The center pole of this faction was Jiang Zemin, the former president who came to power in 1989 and refused to fully hand over the reins to his successor, Hu Jintao, in 2002. In the years since, he has insisted on participating in key decisions, protected corrupt leaders and brokered deals, including the elevation of Mr. Xi.

Whatever Mr. Jiang’s earlier expectations in supporting the rise of Mr. Xi, the new president has shown that he will not rule in any former leader’s shadow. Mr. Xi’s step-by-step destruction of Mr. Jiang’s three most dangerous protégés has been a display of cunning and decisiveness that has not been seen since Mao.

It can be difficult to comprehend that Mr. Xi can be serious about fighting corruption and saving the regime, rather than just accumulating power for himself, when his own siblings have accumulated enormous wealth through crony dealings, as forensic investigations by Bloomberg and The New York Times have revealed. But internally Mr. Xi is seen to have moral standing because he has opposed his siblings’ business dealings and ensured that he, his wife and his daughter are clean — as best as any outsider can tell.

Mr. Xi and his close supporters, who were born into the Communist aristocracy as children of former leaders, have won the first round in their battle to save the revolution that their parents fought for. But there is a long journey ahead not least because, like their forebears, they have invested far more effort defining enemies than objectives.

“It is for real now! The breeze is blowing away the evil air,” said an old friend of Mr. Xi’s, Hu Muying, when she convened an association called The Children of Yanan this year at the Spring Festival, a major Chinese holiday.

Ms. Hu warned of a coming protracted struggle against Western culture and general ideological confusion.

“In short, this is a very complicated and difficult fight,” said Ms. Hu. “It is a struggle of ‘You die, I live.”’

John Garnaut, the author of The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo, is the Asia Pacific editor for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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