When Qiao Shi, once China’s third most powerful man, died on June 14, he must have been a happy man. His passing came a mere three days after a major blow against his chief political antagonist, former Chinese regime leader Jiang Zemin.
Qiao passed away on June 14 at the age of 91, following failed hospital treatment, the state-run mouthpiece Xinhua reported. On the June 11, disgraced security chief Zhou Yongkang, was sentenced to life in prison, a key moment in the destruction of the political faction belonging to Jiang Zemin.
Despite being one of the Chinese Communist Party’s most powerful men and head of the agency responsible for the regime’s police and internal security forces, Qiao Shi was something of a moderate, even a liberal personality on the Chinese political scene prior to his retirement in 1998. A mark of his prestige in the Party was evident on June 17, when his death was marked with flags at half-staff.
Struggle With a Rising Despot
During the 1990s, Qiao Shi was the main political adversary of Jiang Zemin, whose time in office as Communist Party general secretary from 1989 to 2002 is increasingly becoming synonymous with entrenched corruption and appalling human rights violations.
Qiao, from Shanghai, was born in 1924 as Jiang Zhitong. A Communist Party member since 1940, he specialized in intelligence and security. Like many Chinese officials, he was harshly persecuted during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), but rose to prominence in the 1980s, becoming a Politburo member and head of the Communist Party’s disciplinary agency in 1987.
Though Jiang Zemin took over from Deng Xiaoping as general secretary in 1989, Deng retained control over the military and Party through his political network, which included Qiao.
One defining characteristic of Qiao’s statesmanship was his insistence on the rule of law, something that stood in direct contrast to Jiang Zemin’s crony politics and self-promotion.
At the 3rd Plenary session of the 8th National People’s Congress, Qiao said that it was important to build a clean government with emphasis on the legal system. All government workers were servants of the people, rather than masters over them, Qiao said at the meeting.
Qiao was a roadblock for Jiang, whose political game hinged on the persistence of a system in which personal relationships, not institutions, were key.
Driven Into Retirement
In early 1997, Deng Xiaoping died, leaving Jiang as the undisputed leader in Party politics. When the 15th National Communist Party Congress was held later that year, Jiang took the opportunity to move against his enemies, including Qiao.
Jiang Zemin found an ally in Bo Yibo, a Communist Party elder from the same generation as Deng. Together, they agreed to remove Qiao from his positions of influence. Bo’s son, Bo Xilai, was also brought under Jiang’s wing at this time.
In the run-up to the 15th National Congress of the Communist Party, Bo Yibo informed Qiao that an age limit of 70 would be set for high-ranking Party officials. Qiao, already in his mid-70s, would have to retire. For reasons that remain unclear, Qiao Shi agreed to the limit without protest and left his posts in early 1998.
Before he retired, Qiao, as head of the regime’s security forces, exerted a moderating influence on Jiang’s ambitions. Now, Jiang and his faction had full control.
Jiang’s despotic tendencies were first expressed when he demonstrated enthusiasm in crushing pro-democracy voices in his base area of Shanghai. Now, Jiang and his circle were aiming at another group outside the Party’s control.
‘Hundreds of Benefits, Not a Single Harm’
Falun Gong, a meditative spiritual discipline first taught to the Chinese public in 1992, became immensely popular in the 1990s—by 1998, Chinese government estimates put the number of practitioners at between 70 million and 100 million people.
Luo Gan, an ally of Jiang Zemin and the man who replaced Qiao Shi as security chief, had already suggested that Falun Gong might serve as a convenient scapegoat with which to buttress Jiang’s Party credentials. Starting in 1996, Falun Gong began to meet with politically charged criticism in the state media and its adherents came under police surveillance. Investigations were carried out to “discover” foreign backing and illegal activity among practitioners. None could find any fault with Falun Gong.
In 1998, Qiao and other members of the National People’s Congress ordered more studies be conducted on Falun Gong and its practitioners. The verdict: Falun Gong had brought “hundreds of benefits” to Chinese health and society, and “not a single harm.”
The overwhelming evidence supporting Falun Gong as a boon for the Chinese people and nation did nothing to stop Luo Gan and Jiang Zemin’s brutal plans for the spiritual group.
Behind closed doors, Jiang, reported to have labeled Falun Gong an existential threat to the atheist Communist Party, ordered a nationwide campaign be launched to eradicate it. In June, he set up the so-called 610 Office, an extralegal secret police organization without powers extending to all branches of the Party and government, to carry out this repression.
Headed by Luo Gan, the 610 Office leapt into action on July 20, mobilizing the state security apparatus to arrest tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners within days.
In the 16 years of persecution that followed, that number would shoot up into the hundreds of thousands or millions, according to human rights investigations. Tens of thousands are estimated to have been tortured to death at the hands of the authorities or harvested for their organs.
Brutal Repression, Unbridled Corruption
In persecuting Falun Gong, Jiang Zemin and his political faction vastly expanded the powers of the regime’s security agencies. The Political and Legal Affairs Commission (PLAC), which Qiao Shi had once directed, became a fearsome organization that commanded millions of police, paramilitary troops, and plainclothes operatives. At one point, under the direction of Jiang ally Zhou Yongkang, the PLAC enjoyed a budget even higher than that of the People’s Liberation Army.
Aside from Falun Gong, other religious and ethnic minorities met with similar crackdown—house Christians, Tibetans, Uighur Muslims, and all manner of dissidents suffered under the expansion of the PLAC.
Under Qiao, the Armed Police, a subsidiary of the PLAC, was subordinate to the police department. When Zhou Yongkang took over, the scale of the Armed Police’s actions widened considerably. From the forced demolitions of people’s homes to performing security checks at meetings, the Armed Police came to be used frequently. As the PLAC’s power swelled, it proved able to completely disregard the law.
While prisoners of conscience languished in prison or were vivisected for their organs, Jiang’s web of political beneficiaries expanded both in size and wealth. With powerful allies in nearly every sector of the Party, government, and military, as well as state-run firms, the Jiang faction became extremely corrupt. The income gap rose and vast quantities of wealth were squandered on vanity projects.
But the party couldn’t last forever. When Jiang Zemin stepped down from the role of Communist party general secretary in 2002, he was replaced by Hu Jintao, who displayed little independence in his leadership—Jiang faction stalwarts held real power. By the 2010s, it was time for Hu Jintao to step down as well.
Compromising with the rest of the Party leadership, the Jiang faction appears to have permitted the placement of Xi Jinping, in temporary power as general secretary, but with the intention to remove him in favor of Bo Xilai, the son of Jiang’s deceased ally Bo Yibo. The chief backer of this coup plot was Zhou Yongkang, director of the PLAC since 2007.
The coup never happened. Zhou and Bo’s covers were blown following the Wang Lijun scandal, and Xi Jinping took the chance to strike. In 2013, Bo Xilai was sentenced to life in prison, and a massive anti-corruption campaign, run by the Communist Party’s disciplinary agency (another organization Qiao Shi had headed) began to eviscerate China’s officialdom, purging many Jiang supporters in the process.
Following the arrest and trial of Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang and other high-profile members of the Jiang faction were also detained and investigated, mostly for their economic crimes. Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission, died in prison, and Li Dongsheng, one of Jiang’s chief propagandists and key arbiter of the anti-Falun Gong campaign, was also axed from his job.
On June 11, 2015, the court responsible for trying Zhou Yongkang sentenced him to life in prison for corruption and disclosure of state secrets.
Zhou, who oversaw the security apparatus built up into its all-powerful form under Jiang, was in many ways the backbone of the faction since 2007. With his downfall, the 88-year-old Jiang was lost.
The sentencing of Zhou is something of a technicality in a process that saw him lose power three years ago, in 2012, but for Qiao Shi, who sat through 18 years of retirement watching his enemies run roughshod over the country, it may have been a fitting consolation before he drew his final breath.
With research by Frank Fang.