Noose Appears to Tighten Around Former Chinese Security Commissar

February 24, 2014 10:05 am Last Updated: February 24, 2014 9:18 pm

A number of new arrests of high-level Chinese Communist Party officials, all associated with Zhou Yongkang, indicate that the current Party leadership is advancing rapidly in its investigation of the former security czar. Party leaders are publicly marking each stage of their systematic campaign to dismantle Zhou’s patronage network before, presumably, finally dealing with him.

The most recently known detention was that of a security official named Liang Ke, who was the director of the Beijing Municipal Ministry of State Security (MSS), one of China’s secret political police forces. The MSS is an intelligence agency that focuses both on international spying and the surveillance and suppression of Chinese people that the Communist Party sees as a threat to its power.

Liang Ke’s arrest was publicized on state-run and major domestic websites. This sends a signal to the Party’s rank and file about the status of the investigation of Zhou Yongkang, because usually matters relating to the security services are shrouded in secrecy.

Liang is said to have transmitted information to Zhou Yongkang obtained from his spy network, telephone intercepts, and access to secrets of the leadership. The New York Times says that a policy advisor and a former security official said that Liang was suspected of assisting Zhou “beyond approved means and channels.” 

Zhou Yongkang, 71, is one of the highest-ranking Communist Party officials to be embroiled in an enquiry of this kind since the Party took power in China in 1949. 

Prior to the investigation’s penetration into the security forces, the Party leadership took apart Zhou’s political networks in the state-dominated oil sector and in energy-rich Sichuan Province.

Provincial Vice Governor in Spotlight

Last week the authorities announced that Ji Wenlin, a vice governor of Hainan Province, an island in southern China, was placed under investigation. 

The news of Ji Wenlin’s arrest was widely followed by political observers because of his proximity to Zhou Yongkang. For around a decade, from 1998 to 2008, he was Zhou’s personal assistant and accompanied him in a range of roles, including in the petroleum industry and security system.

After Zhou assumed his role as head of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee, Ji Wenlin became the deputy director of the Central Office for Stability Maintenance, a role that would have reported to Zhou, who oversaw the entire sprawling security system.

When the news of Ji’s arrest was announced, news reports in mainland China were unusually explicit about the connection to Zhou Yongkang. Typically if a case is highly politically sensitive, the Communist Party’s censors scrub the Internet of all unfavorable references. 

Observers thus took it as yet another sign that the tide had turned against Zhou Yongkang, formerly one of the most powerful officials in the Party. 

Zhou Yongkang was the chief of the Communist Party’s security apparatus until November 2012, when the new leadership was installed. Since then, the political networks that Zhou and his allies carefully constructed over more than a decade have been dismantled one by one. For a long time now Zhou has been rumored to be at the center of the tightening investigation.

New Leadership Making Its Mark

The destruction of Zhou Yongkang is a signal event in Chinese politics, demonstrating the heft of the new leadership and the speed with which it has gripped the levers of power in communist China. Zhou is understood to be a major target for the current leaders because of his close ties to Bo Xilai, the former Politburo member who is now in jail, and because of the power he amassed at the head of the security forces. 

Zhou was installed as head of the domestic security apparatus by the former regime leader Jiang Zemin, who required a trusted foot soldier to continue implementing the campaign against Falun Gong, a spiritual practice that he initiated a persecution of in 1999. 

For Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Jiang Zemin, and other officials associated with them, the suppression of Falun Gong was a joint enterprise from which they could benefit personally and politically. The need to ensure that later communist leaders did not overturn the campaign and allow the exposure of the extreme abuses that have been associated with it—executions, organized torture, secret detentions, the harvesting of organs of living people for profit—is thought to have driven much of their political activity, and ultimately to the reckless behavior that resulted in Bo Xilai’s downfall in 2012.

Subsequent to Xi Jinping’s ascendancy to power in late 2012, the system of re-education through labor camps that were operated in China since the 1950s has been dismantled (although many facilities are still operating under other names), and Li Dongsheng, the head of the 610 Office, the secret police taskforce used to implement the campaign against Falun Gong, has been arrested and put under investigation. These moves, however, are not thought by political analysts to be an attempt by Xi Jinping to vindicate Falun Gong, but a pragmatic means of dealing with his political opponents. 

On the isolation of Zhou Yongkang by dismantling his network, Wu Wei, a former official, was quoted by The New York Times to have said, “This amounts to pulling out a tiger’s teeth so it turns into a sick cat.” Xi Jinping, the Party chief, said that his flagship anti-corruption campaign would target both “tigers” and “flies,” referring to major and minor officials respectively. 

These political maneuvers also take place not long before the “Two Meetings” are expected to be held in Beijing, in March. The Party’s rubber-stamp legislature and its advisory body meet in the capital at that time every year. 

Hua Po, an independent political analyst, told New Tang Dynasty Television that “there will be life-and-death struggles between both sides at the Two Meetings. To ensure that the meetings go smoothly, they might first expose and punish Zhou Yongkang.”