Encircling a Consigliere

July 10, 2017 Updated: July 10, 2017

Chairman Mao Zedong’s ruthless running of China might have come to a premature end if he had had a less capable right-hand man than Premier Zhou Enlai.

With Zhou around to help consolidate power, purge internal rivals, and play the suave diplomat, Mao stayed influential in the Chinese regime until his death in 1976, despite having overseen politically disastrous campaigns—including the Great Leap Forward, a mass collectivization program that killed tens of millions of Chinese, and the wrecking of China’s five-millennia-old traditions during the Cultural Revolution.

Like Mao, former Communist Party boss Jiang Zemin oversaw policies that, in the time to come, will almost certainly be condemned, such as fostering a culture of corruption and promoting kleptocracy among the Chinese officialdom and launching a brutal persecution campaign against the peaceful practitioners of Falun Gong. Jiang was fortunate to have found a most cunning consigliere in former Party vice-chairman Zeng Qinghong.

Zeng, 77, is Jiang’s longtime confidant, hatchetman, and spymaster. Jiang got to know Zeng in Shanghai, the Chinese metropolis that Jiang headed in the 1980s. Because Zeng was part of the Red aristocracy and had proven to be a very capable political enabler, Jiang decided he must keep Zeng close to him in Beijing when he was appointed as paramount leader by Deng Xiaoping. Jiang was chosen to succeed Zhao Ziyang, the liberal-leaning Party leader, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

Jiang Zemin. (Minoru Iwasaki-Pool/Getty Images)
Jiang Zemin. (Minoru Iwasaki-Pool/Getty Images)

For nearly two decades, Zeng helped Jiang dispose of problematic political rivals and grow Jiang’s own political faction. Hong Kong became a Jiang bastion after Zeng became overseer of the semi-autonomous city in the early 2000s. Former Party elites like Politburo member Bo Xilai and security czar Zhou Yongkang were widely considered untouchable because of their association with the Jiang faction.

However, the attempted defection of Bo’s right-hand man, Wang Lijun, in 2012 marked the beginning of the end for Jiang’s faction. Given their propensity for malfeasance, members of the Jiang faction became natural targets of the internal police officers tasked with executing Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.

Speculation that an investigation of Zeng Qinghong was imminent first surfaced in 2014, following the arrest of Zhou Yongkang. Hong Kong magazines started reporting stories of Zeng’s corruption, and Zeng’s senior associates got picked up by anti-corruption investigators.

The Xi leadership appears to be going full throttle for Zeng this year. Zeng’s cronies in the Chinese financial industry have gotten into trouble—think missing billionaire Xiao Jianhua, detained Anbang chairman Wu Xiaohui, and purged deputy state asset regulator Zhang Xiwu. Other lesser cronies have been rounded up as well.

Because Zhou Enlai died eight months before Mao, he never had to worry about preserving his boss’s legacy. Zeng Qinghong, however, will almost certainly have to confess to assisting Jiang’s crimes and witness the crumbling of all that he helped Jiang to achieve.