Sieren′s China: The tiger lives on | Opinion | DW | 12.06.2015
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Sieren's China: The tiger lives on

China's former security chief Zhou Yongkang has been sentenced to life in prison - not to death, as many observers had anticipated. There's a reason for that, writes DW columnist Frank Sieren.

The anti-graft campaign launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping has reached a high point. Yet Zhou Yongkang, once one of the most powerful people in the Chinese Republic, did not receive the harshest of verdicts, which came as a surprise. Many observers assumed that the 72-year-old former member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee would be tried in public. And most of them were certain that the outcome would be the death penalty.

Afterwards, a period of uncertainty was to be expected. In China, it's possible for the court to hand down the sentence of a death penalty with two years' probation, the greatest punitive measure apart from the death sentence outright. After two years, the sentence can be reduced to life in prison.

But Zhou was spared all this. The judges in Beijing's neighboring city, Tianjin, sentenced the former national security chief - dubbed "the Great Tiger" by Xi Jinping, to life in prison. Zhou has already pleaded guilty and accepted the sentence.

Verdict based on compromises?

With this outcome, the Chinese people now probably suspect that the president sets different standards when it comes to punishing the big and little fish he's set his sights on. But Xi must be cautious. He can't afford to make too many enemies with the people responsible for China's national security, as he needs allies to support his plans for reform. In the long run, fear and terror will not allow him to rule the nation. That's why compromises were apparently made in Zhou's trial: it was not public, and he was spared the death penalty. Not only that, but a life sentence can discreetly become simple house arrest, with enough time.

In addition, it's quite probable that Zhou's network will continue to operate from inside prison: Xi must expect that. Two years ago, when Zhou vanished from the public eye and was expelled from the party, anything seemed possible. But then, he was arrested last July and about two months ago charged with corruption, abuse of power and leaking national secrets.

Concerns over exposure

As head of China's national security agency, which has a larger budget than the Chinese army, Zhou Yongkang is said to have pocketed more than $21 million (18.6 million euros) in bribes. Jiang Jiemin, his old friend and the former head of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), allegedly gave him several hundreds of thousands of dollars. He's also on trial.

In addition, Zhou's wife and son from a previous marriage have allegedly benefitted from his power, in the form of business contracts. Both of them have already admitted to having accepted some $20 million in bribes, and have consequently been arrested. Zhou's family fortune is estimated at around $14 billion, but his private assets have now been confiscated.

It took an astoundingly long time to come to a verdict - a sign that negotiations and the political balancing act were complex. Zhou's case was likely resolved by the Politburo Standing Committee, which probably decided to take care of things in private instead of running the risk of Zhou misbehaving and shaming the party in public - like former party leader Bo Xilai.

But the images released on Thursday were enough to humiliate Zhou. High-ranking Chinese politicians traditionally dye their hair black to convey youthfulness and potency. Yesterday, however, another Zhou stood in the courtroom, one with white hair and dressed in a wrinkled worker's jacket. The great tiger looked as if he'd aged decades during his two-year absence. The message was clear: Pride comes before a fall.

DW columnist Frank Sieren has been living in Beijing for 20 years.

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