Members of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party collectively rule a nation of 1.3 billion people, making them China's most powerful group of political leaders.
The party has decided to open a formal corruption investigation into Zhou Yongkang, one of the nine members of the paramount policymaking body of the previous administration of President Hu Jintao. The party’s anti-graft watchdog announced it is investigating Zhou for “serious violations of party discipline.”
The 71-year-old Zhou is said to have been implicated in a large web of corruption. He is the highest-ranking Communist Party figure to face a formal criminal investigation since the country embarked on economic reform in the late 1970s.
Taking on endemic corruption within the party is the right thing to do.
But it needs to be pointed out that the unusual move to bring criminal charges against such a powerful politician is part of the political battle waged by the current administration of President Xi Jinping to solidify its power base.
Zhou was head of a state-owned oil company. It is believed that he used money he had earned illicitly from the oil business to build up a corrupt network of people cemented by interests.
China’s leadership may appear to be monolithic, but in fact the innermost circles of the party and the state include people with widely different agendas and motives. Each section of the government tends to become an interest group. The Xi administration recently launched a series of campaigns against such corrupt interest groups.
After the top official of the Ministry of Railways was charged with corruption, the ministry was dismantled and its functions were taken over by three separate organizations at the time the Xi administration was inaugurated.
Gen. Xu Caihou, who was once one of the country’s most senior military officials, was expelled from the party after being accused of accepting bribes.
Now, the administration is targeting the oil sector’s entrenched interests in its campaign to purge the party of corruption.
Zhou is said to have close ties with former President Jiang Zemin. There must have been fierce resistance within the party to the move against Zhou.
Immediately after Zhou retired from the Politburo Standing Committee in 2012, the government started detaining people around him, including high-ranking officials and business big shots.
The Xi administration then began to make efforts to prepare public opinion for actions against influential politicians by stressing that even high-level officials would not be exempted from its anti-graft campaign.
The investigation into Zhou came after careful and meticulous efforts to corner the former security chief.
It can safely be assumed now that Xi has built a solid power base for his leadership.
The Communist Party Central Committee’s plenary session last year called for judicial reform, and the rule of law is expected to be high on the agenda during this year’s session, to be convened in October.
There are some fundamental questions, however, about whether the action against Zhou will contribute to the efforts to establish the rule of law in China.
The decision to investigate the former member of the Politburo Standing Committee was made by the party leadership, not by the judiciary.
Once the party’s inquiry discovers his violations, he will be stripped of party membership and subjected to the legal process of criminal justice.
The whole system is based on the assumption that the Communist Party’s power is superior to judicial power. The party leadership is considered infallible.
Stamping out corruption to build a fair society is a worthy policy goal. If this goal is merely a political tool used by the powers that be to buttress the party’s monopoly on power, however, there will be limits to what this undertaking can achieve.
As for the rule of law, China has a Constitution that enumerates the people’s rights.
But the party has been cracking down on many legal and academic experts campaigning for the realization of constitutional government. The reality of China’s government is a far cry from the rule of law.
What China really needs is an effective system for the rule of law that can expose and punish the crimes of even top party leaders. Establishing such a system is the proper way to root out systemic corruption.
--The Asahi Shimbun