After the fall of high-flying politician Bo Xilai, Chinese authorities have launched a series of investigations against top party officials. Experts say this is a reflection of power struggles within the Communist Party.
Beijing recently dismissed the head of a commission that oversees the country's major state-owned companies. Jiang Jiemin was removed as chief of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council because of "suspected serious disciplinary violations," state news agency Xinhua reported on Tuesday, September 3rd.
In a statement the commission expressed the support of its members for the dismissal, saying the decision represents "the fundamental requirements of the party to be strict with its members and demonstrates the party's steadfast determination to fight corruption."
Jiang is a former chairman of China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) and its subsidiary PetroChina, Asia's top oil and gas producer and one of the world's most valuable listed energy companies. But he is also a member of the party's Central Committee, which is made up of its top 200 members, making Jiang the most senior official to fall since President Xi Jinping took over power last November.
A series of investigations
Xi has made the fight against corruption a priority of his new administration, in a bid to "clean up" the ranks of the 80-million-member Communist Party of China (CPC) amid growing public consternation over inequality and corruption.
Analysts argue the investigation, which involves four other top executives, is an attempt by Xi and Premier Li Keqiang (main photo, right) to assert their authority over powerful state-owned companies. "It's long been known that state-owned enterprises are a key part of the ecosystem of corruption. They have vast political influence, and their ostensible aim, unlike most other state organs, is to maximize profits," said China expert Rebecca Liao, adding that this combination enables China's state-owned enterprises to "pass off corruption as legitimate."
The Chinese newspaper 21st Century Business Herald cited unidentified "insiders" on Tuesday, September 3rd, as saying Jiang had been close to the former party secretary of the city of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, whose downfall was connected to a scandal surrounding the death of British businessman Neil Heywood in November 2011. The trial of the leftist politician ended in August, with the verdict being expected in the coming days.
Bo, Jiang and Zhou
But it seems that Jiang isn't the only high-ranking CPC member under investigation linked to both Bo and the oil industry. According to the Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post, China's top leaders have also endorsed a corruption probe into former security Chief Zhou Yongkang (main photo, left), who was once one of the country's most powerful politicians.
Zhou rose through party ranks, eventually becoming a member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), the top body of the CPC. He spent the early part of his career in the state-run oil sector, working for China National Petroleum Corp., the country's biggest oil and Gas Company. As a PBSC member, he was responsible for internal security and stability and wielded great influence over the country's police and security forces.
"Zhou was also Bo's most vocal supporter, a role that pitted him against President Xi and much of the current and former Politburo Standing Committee," Liao told DW. Zhou was widely believed to be grooming Bo as his successor and supporting Bo's bid for a seat on the PBSC. According to a New York Times report, he was the only member of the Standing Committee who opposed a decision to oust Bo in March last year.
Liao, a China law expert based in California, pointed out that although no direct evidence had been presented to suggest a solid connection between Zhou and the case against Bo, the timing was indeed of "some coincidence," given the relationship between Zhou, Bo, the current leadership.
'Bringing down political opponents'
China scholar Perry Link doesn't believe the campaigns against Bo, Jiang and potentially Zhou are truly aimed at fighting corruption: "For more than two decades there have been two reasons why top Chinese authorities launch "anti-corruption" drives, and in neither case is the goal to wipe out corruption," he told DW.
The expert from the University of California, Riverside said that corruption charges are used, on the one hand, as a "public cover for bringing down political opponents." On the other hand, he added, they are aimed at "making a show, to an increasingly Internet-savvy public, that 'we top leaders share your indignation, and are on your side.'"
"To strike out against such big fish as Zhou Yongkang and Jiang Jiemin suggests that in this case reason one is more likely than reason two. It would be dangerous to go after such big targets simply for the purpose of making a show," Link explained.
Any move against Zhou could be unprecedented since no sitting or retired Standing Committer member has been jailed for economic crimes since the Communists swept to power in 1949. This would cross a line, according to Link, which would show that the "stakes may be high in the struggle" inside the top leadership.
'No one is safe'
Some experts say that Bo's unexpected spirited defense at his trial late August ripped open the political divide within the Party that his arrest was supposed to have assuaged. "The attack on Bo has always been about political power, not "corruption," and it may be that Xi & Co. wants to bring down Zhou-Bo & Co." said Link.
Liao believes Xi cannot be an effective president as long as that factional struggle continues to be significant. His most important political moment to date is coming up in November at a meeting of the 18th Central Committee, where he will lay out his agenda.
"He must consolidate political power by then, and investigating Zhou goes a long way towards establishing his authority," she said.
She also stated that the CPC was sending out a message to its members that no one is safe: "The catchphrase has been that 'tigers and flies' will be subject to the rule of law."
While the leadership may eventually succeed in convincing cadres that rank is not a protector, they will have a much more difficult job making the case that political allies are also no guarantee. "Without outside controls on the party, self-enforcement turns into a struggle between political factions," said Liao.