In the wake of the purge of top security official Zhou Yongkang, Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping appears to be making an explicit case against the former security czar—and hinting that other, higher, officials are in the offing for elimination.
These messages, conveyed directly or interpreted afterwards by analysts, were presented in recent speeches by Xi to cadres in the Political and Legal Affairs Committee (PLAC), the agency that controls the entire domestic security apparatus of the Chinese state. It represents the first public reckoning with the legacy of Zhou Yongkang’s control over the security apparatus, which was widely recognized to have become a second center of power in the regime.
Zhou, who chaired the PLAC from 2007 to 2012 (after five years as head of the Ministry of Public Security), was effectively appointed to the position by former Party godfather Jiang Zemin. Apart from continuing to execute Jiang’s violent security measures against the Falun Gong spiritual group, Zhou helped build the office into a many-tentacled empire, largely impervious to the directives of the Hu Jintao leadership.
The system’s growth was also based on the perversely incentivized “stability maintenance” system, where instances of protest would be met by overwhelming force, which engendered anger at the regime and led to more protests, thereby justifying the use of greater force.
‘Handle of the Knife’
As part of breaking with this legacy, Xi chaired a major conclave on Jan. 20 in Beijing, where he spoke of the need to “firmly grasp the handle of the knife” when it comes to the work of the PLAC, where Zhou once enjoyed his unfettered power.
A helpful interpretation published in People’s Daily on the same day—where the author referred to Xi by his deferential and respectful nickname, “Xi Dada,” which can mean “Uncle Xi”—made clear that Xi’s remarks meant business.
“Many political-law cadres sighed: ‘it’s been so long since I heard the phrase ‘knife handle,'” the author (who was not named) wrote. The piece went on to explain that the phrase comes from Mao Zedong, the revolutionary leader of the Chinese communist insurgency and the first chairman of the People’s Republic of China.
“At that time, class struggle was intense, class conflict was prominent, and he emphasized ‘the knife handle’ to point out the class character of the political-legal system.”
In May of 1926, when Mao was chairing a conference in Guangzhou on agrarian revolution, he reportedly said: “making revolution is knife against knife, gun against gun. To overthrow the militia of the landlord, we need our own peasant army. If the knife handle isn’t in one’s own hand, there will be chaos.”
The People’s Daily author made clear the subtext of Xi’s reference to this phrase: Xi Jinping must be the one with control over the Party’s instruments of coercion.
“The political-legal system is the nation’s powerful agency; it is able to restrict people’s freedom and confiscate personal assets; as soon as it leaves control of the Party and the people, falling into the hands of someone with ulterior motives, then it will become a sharp weapon that harms the enterprise of the Party and the people,” the author wrote.
Unusually for a piece in People’s Daily, the article referred to the alleged abuses of power of Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun, who ran the southwestern mega-city of Chongqing as “their family empire,” the writer said.
Since 2012 Epoch Times reports and columns, particularly in the Chinese edition, discussed a conspiracy to seize power by Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai—with others behind the scenes. The paper reported that Jiang Zemin, the former leader, directed the conspiracy, while Zeng Qinghong, his henchman and political fixer, plotted many of the details.
The original plan, these reports said, based on details provided at the time by Party insiders, called for Bo Xilai to replace Zhou Yongkang as head of the security apparatus, and then, when the time was ripe, shunt aside Xi Jinping to seize the highest power in the Party. This would have been possible because of the enormous power wielded by whoever was the chairman of the PLAC under the old system: the public security apparatus, the People’s Armed Police (around one million strong), and other auxiliary forces.
The conspiracy theme has since been at least partially corroborated, most recently with reports in the Hong Kong and mainland press about Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai holding secret meetings to discuss an alternative political line—one based on hard Maoist class theory rather than the commercially-oriented “reform and opening up” policies of Deng Xiaoping. They reportedly decided to “do something big.” The overall tenor of the reports was understood by analysts to mean that the two are alleged to have conspired to seize power.
Now, analysts suspect that Xi Jinping is sharpening the knife for a new target: Jiang Zemin himself. A necessary precondition of any major move of that sort, of course, is firm control of both the military and the domestic security apparatus. With the purging of high-level military officials through last year and this year, and the current ideological fortification being applied to the security services, Xi appears to be making just such arrangements.