As the Chinese saying goes: “A large tree has deep roots.” This was demonstrated recently when Communist Party investigators announced that they had scored a victory in arresting a network of corrupt officials in the western province of Sichuan, over half of whom enjoyed a common political patron: the former head of the Party’s vast internal security apparatus, Zhou Yongkang.
Zhou left office in late 2012, and was sentenced to life imprisonment this June after a lengthy corruption investigation. Observers of Chinese politics widely understood the takedown of Zhou Yongkang to have been inspired by his political rebellion from the Party leadership, rather than the actual (and substantial) corruption he engaged in.
The news that 13 of the 22 cadres recently investigated and removed from office in Sichuan were Zhou Yongkang’s men shows the longevity of political cronyism in China. The news also indicates how powerful officials, in their posts around China, are apt to build networks of personnel loyal to them, thus facilitating flows of money, power, and more relationships.
The most recent official to be purged in Sichuan was Li Kunxue on Nov. 24. He had served as deputy general secretary of the Communist Party branch in the city of Chengdu, Sichuan.
Rapid advancement in his career owed to his allegiance to Zhou, Chinese media reported, showing how during the three years of Zhou’s reign as Sichuan Party Secretary (1999 to 2002), Li was promoted from the secretary of a county-level Party Committee to the Party’s standing committee in Chengdu, and then to his current post in 2012, when Zhou Yongkang was head of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which controls China’s domestic security apparatus.
Zhou’s network of power across China is hard to estimate, but he seems to have developed and maintained loyalists wherever he went: in Sichuan, in the petroleum sector, and in the security system. According to Wang Dongming, general secretary of Sichuan Province, whose remarks were conveyed by Beijing News, Zhou has been “interfering with Sichuan’s political affairs for a long time and has had a severe impact on the local political ecology.”
Another official, Zhao Miao, a member of the Communist Party standing committee in Chengdu, who was taken down last year, also had a close relationship with Zhou’s family and friends, according to Beijing News, citing a source familiar with the situation. Zhao regularly greeted and entertained members of Zhou Yongkang’s family when they visited, the report said.
Apart from ties to Zhou Yongkang, 10 of the 22 fallen officials were also found to be cronies of Li Chuncheng, a key aide to Zhou who was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment this October. His crimes were “helping others gain illegal benefits, and causing great harm to public funds under the orders of Zhou Yongkang.”
The extent to which the loyalists networks of Zhou Yongkang and Li Chuncheng overlapped was not clear from the reports.