18 April 2009

Zhou Yongkang, Rumors and Predictions

According to the rumor mill, a spreading corruption scandal may soon reach the doorstep of Zhou Yongkang, who, as the head of the Central Politico-Legal Committee (which oversees, from the Party side, China's law enforcement activities), has to be considered one of the more powerful members of the Politburo Standing Committee. According to the report above, Zhou might decide to retire early in order to save the Party from further embarrassment.

This has been a tough few months for the reputation of China's public security apparatus—which Zhou used to head. In addition to police officials being accused of corruption, a series of unexplained—or, rather, ridiculously explained, as in the case of the "hide-and-seek" case in Yunnan or the "nightmare" case in Jiangxi—has forced the Ministry of Public Security to acknowledge the possibility of serious abuses in its detention centers. Disgust with these police scandals have reportedly led ommenters on mainland websites to call for the ousting of both Zhou and the public security minister, Meng Jianzhu.

Reading this news led me to recall something I wrote over a year ago upon learning that Zhou was about to enter the inner circle of Chinese leadership. At the time, I wondered (in a half-hearted predictive kind of way) whether the position of China's police might weaken vis-a-vis other parts of the law enforcement mechanism, such as the courts or the procuratorate. Instead, events such as protests in Tibet and security concerns about last year's Olympics appear to have strengthened Zhou's influence and the power of China's police.

So much for making predictions about anything in China, let alone the impact of elite leadership movements.

Maybe, though, if these current rumors have a grain of truth to them, it's all part of the effort to rein in China's police through other means. In a country where so much decision-making power is concentrated in the hands of a few people who have little, if any, accountability to the country's citizens, factional politics play an important role in achieving balance between different interests. After a strong run, it appears that the "stability-above-all-else" crowd led by Zhou might be under pressure from within the Party, but from whom? If China's lucky, it will be those who, though no doubt believing in the importance of maintaining stability, believe that this goal is more effectively realized by building institutions that truly promote "rule of law" (rather than "rule by law").

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