- Thu, 04/26/2012 - 20:57
By Russell Leigh Moses
April 26, 2012, 2:14 PM HKT
In the wake of the dismissal of Politburo member Bo Xilai, is another political storm brewing?
Zhou Yongkang, China’s security czar, burst back into prominence earlier this week, with a strident essay in the People’s Daily on how the law must serve the Communist Party. The commentary showed that some in the Communist Party hierarchy are still pushing for more than just a simple smackdown of adversaries.
Speculation in the overseas press had Zhou soon suffering the same fate of Bo, given purported close ties between the two. But the supposition of the two being allies, like so many other claims in this political drama, is questionable. Zhou had praised some of the initiatives in Bo’s city, but so had many other top Communist Party figures, and Zhou’s view of the man and his methods remain mysterious.
Far more relevant is the signal Zhou’s essay sends to cadres about what direction the party plans to pursue in the wake of the Bo crisis.
In his commentary, Zhou insisted that the primary purpose of law and its enforcers “is to strengthen and improve the Party’s leadership in political and legal work, thereby consolidating the party’s ruling status.” Those are code words for the need to use the legal instruments to protect the Party’s supremacy. The law, Zhou wrote, “should always adhere to the Party’s cause first…and determinedly resist forces hostile to China’s socialist political system, as well as erroneous political views in the West.” This is a view of a system under siege, with law as the shield.
More remarkable is Zhou’s emphasis in the essay on President Hu Jintao’s recent directive “to talk about politics.” For Zhou and his allies, getting the judiciary and law enforcement to focus on “political direction” and “political principles” is crucial. “Talking about politics,” means that party purity and loyalty to the center is how Zhou and his allies want cadres to be judged—not by how well officials manage economic development.
Zhou’s comments come amidst squalls in the party ranks about getting officials to clean up their acts.
Some essays in party media continue to push for tutoring better and more honest officials through tighter selection procedures. Others instead put the emphasis on cadres “avoiding the temptation of corruption” when that does arises.
A profusion of different messages indicates that cadres are receiving mixed signals, and some clearly do not know which way to run.
Reformers like Premier Wen Jiabao might be looking to use the current crisis push greater transparency in government as a means of keeping officials honest and governance good. But hardliners are campaigning for tightening controls, not loosening them. Transparency is a long-term proposal for an illness that Zhou and others in the center think requires immediate surgery.
The latter viewpoint was evident in comments made earlier this week by He Guoqiang, one the Communist Party’s top nine leaders, who drew an explicit link between problems in society with corruption among cadre and called for “serious investigations” into everything from excessive school fees to fake medicines. Perhaps not coincidentally, coverage in the Party media has recently taken pains to highlight specific areas of temptation and transgression, from the acceptance of gift cards to the proliferation of private clubs.
Zhou’s high-profile essay hints at where the party leadership is now leaning: away from administrative assessments of officials, or lessons in morality or other sorts of experiments, towards something far more draconian — an ideological campaign using law to strengthen the party’s authority.
An anti-corruption campaign could proceed in tandem, designed to reign in renegade cadres whose actions are especially shady, or whose loyalty to the hardline Center is considered suspect.
The removal of Bo Xilai hasn’t resolved the debates in the leadership about the best way to manage society. Cadres are still looking for someone to provide the proper direction for that—and Zhou Yongkang just provided his answer to the shouts of some.
We can expect others in the Party ranks to resist a renewed hardline—raising the very real possibility that the removal of Bo Xilai will turn out to be just a minor tempest compared to the political hurricane that could well be looming.
Russell Leigh Moses is a Beijing-based analyst and professor who writes on Chinese politics. He is writing a book on the changing role of power in the Chinese political system.