On June 11, disgraced ex-security chief of the Chinese Communist Party, Zhou Yongkang, was sentenced to life imprisonment after nearly a year of investigation. Who is Zhou Yongkang and why is he such an important figure in the Chinese regime’s factional infighting?
1. He Was One of the Most Powerful Officials in China
The Political and Legislative Affairs Commission (PLAC) is the key to China’s internal security forces. In theory, whoever controls it controls all police, including the paramilitary People’s Armed Police, a veritable army of well over a million men, many of them equipped and trained to military standards.
From 2007, Zhou Yongkang served as director of the Commission, a position he held until the Wang Lijun incident precipitated his downfall.
2. Jiang Zemin, the Former Leader, Helped to Build Him Up
Jiang Zemin was the head of the Chinese regime following the Tiananmen Square Massacre until 2002, but he stayed in effective power by placing his allies into positions of power within the Communist Party elite.
Between the late 1990s and the early 2010s, the Chinese political and economic scene became severely corrupt due to Jiang’s nepotism. Zhou Yongkang, a rising official in the Communist Party’s central committee in the late ’90s, became one of Jiang’s allies.
3. His Career Was Based on Abusing Human Rights
After being catapulted into the leadership of the security apparatus in 2007, Zhou took charge of virtually the entirety of the Chinese Communist Party’s abuses of human rights—including those committed against practitioners of Falun Gong, a traditional spiritual discipline that had become popular in the 1990s.
Jiang Zemin, who personally ordered the persecution in 1999, struggled to find support for the bloody campaign, so he turned to his network of clients to carry out the work—beating, torture, forced labor, and organ harvesting. Zhou Yongkang and other Jiang-aligned officials enthusiastically carried out the anti-Falun Gong campaign.
4. He Was Part of a Coup Plot Against Current Leader
For many observers of Chinese politics, this seemed hard to believe in 2012—but it’s become increasingly clear, and by now is part of accepted knowledge. As the 18th Party Congress was around the corner, it was time to choose a new leader. Deliberations in the Party led to the selection of Xi Jinping to replace Hu Jintao, whom Jiang had treated like a puppet.
This time, instead of controlling Xi, Zhou Yongkang wished to eventually replace him entirely with one of their own: Bo Xilai, the charismatic Party chief of Chongqing, a provincial-level city with 30 million people.
Bo and Zhou worked together to get rid of Xi, but they were ousted when Bo’s police chief, Wang Lijun, defected to the American Consulate in Chengdu in February 2012. He was then turned over to the Party central, which promptly arrested Bo.
5. The Laws of Chinese Politics Say That Zhou Had to Go
After Xi Jinping gained power, it became clear that he had to thoroughly expurgate Zhou to protect his fledging leadership, analysts say. Many of the operations of the Chinese Communist Party can be fruitfully compared to that of a mafia family, so failing to eliminate a challenger would simply have opened Xi up to further trouble down the road. It is only under such circumstances that a sitting leader would have moved against a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, shattering an unwritten rule in Party politics that protects those who reach the apex of power from political retaliation.
“Xi Jinping cannot avoid arresting Zhou Yongkang,” Heng He, an analyst of Chinese communist politics, said in a previous interview. “If Xi Jinping shows any weakness toward Zhou, he will be eaten alive.”