A formerly powerful backroom operator and one of the top officials in the Chinese Communist Party is now under a form of “internal control,” according to a source with knowledge of the circumstances.
The activities and public appearances of Zeng Qinghong, the official, are being restricted, the source said. Control of Zeng was said to be instituted on orders of Xi Jinping because he came to see Zeng as a threat to his rule and even his life, the source said.
Zeng used to be the vice chairman of China and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the small group of Party leaders that controls the country. Over his decades in the Party’s personnel and back offices he gained a reputation for ruthless politicking and built a large network of political patronage and influence.
Most saliently, Zeng was for close to two decades the right hand man to Jiang Zemin, the Party leader who took charge after the June 4 massacre of 1989 and officially held power in one form or another until 2004. Willy Lam, a longtime political analyst of the Party, describes Zeng as an “alter ego and hatchet man” under Jiang. He was also close to fallen Politburo member Bo Xilai, and the former chief of the security forces Zhou Yongkang.
After Jiang left office entirely in 2004, he still retained strong influence over politics in China through an extensive network of loyalists. Two of his protégés, Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai, sought to threaten Xi Jinping’s ascension to and consolidation of power in the Communist Party before the 18th Party Congress, a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, in 2012, according to other sources in China who spoke to Epoch Times.
Bo and his wife are now in prison on charges of corruption and murder, while Zhou Yongkang has been at the center of an investigation for more than a year, and potentially faces public prosecution. According to a former ministerial-level official in the Political and Legal Affairs Committee, the body that controls the security apparatus, Zhou is now in custody. Any public punishments would be based on ostensibly non-political reasons, such as corruption.
The source explained that Zeng Qinghong, Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, and Jiang Zemin, prior to the leadership transition, which installed Xi Jinping in 2012, had together hatched a plot to sideline Xi Jinping and promote Bo Xilai, eventually to the pinnacle of the Party. Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang were the prime actors in the conspiracy, which at one time included plotting the death of Xi Jinping.
Zeng Qinghong was part of these plans, and carried out certain activities to undermine Xi’s rule, the source said. With the jailing of Bo Xilai and the detention of Zhou Yongkang last year, Zeng Qinghong took over as head of this network of power and influence, opposed to the Xi regime, the source said. Now Xi Jinping is taking action against him, the source said—leaving open the possibility that even Jiang Zemin may be next in line.
These events have taken place despite Zeng’s support, in years prior, for the promotion of Xi Jinping. “At that point Zeng had no choice. Bo Xilai was too controversial,” the source said.
The source who provided the information about Zeng to Epoch Times is close to Zhongnanhai, the Party’s top leadership. The source is considered extremely reliable because of the source’s position, and the source’s record of disclosing information about the internal machinations of the Communist Party that has later proved to be correct.
An Unusual Appearance
Given the lack of transparency in how politics is conducted in China, the public appearances of current and former leaders in the Communist Party are widely taken by observers, and cadres in the system, as a bellwether of the political fortunes of the officials in question.
The circumstances of Zeng Qinghong’s public appearances over the last several months have given observers some clues as to Zeng’s current status.
Zeng most recently visited the Shanghai Han Tianheng Art Gallery on May 14, according to reports that first appeared on social media and spread to the Hong Kong press and some mainland news websites. He was pictured along with the son of former regime leader Jiang Zemin, and a number of Shanghai officials.
The news was not picked up by any of the official newspapers and websites that regularly republish vast quantities of news. The source who discussed Zeng’s status said that this was deliberate. It sent a message to Party members that Zeng is allowed to appear in a private capacity, but that no official media will report on him, and that he is not allowed to appear at official events. The source said that he is under surveillance and a form of control that limits his movements, public appearances, and, crucially, his ability to communicate with factional allies. A similar arrangement was instituted against Zhou Yongkang, the source said. Such measures are extralegal and are often taken in the initial stages of the political purge of a target.
The beginning of this move against Zeng was visible through a notable absence from a public event earlier this year. In January, over a dozen former top officials sent condolences or attended the funeral of Hong Kong Kung Fu film mogul and philanthropist Run Run Shaw. Apart from the currently sitting top leaders, among those noted in official reports were Peng Qinghua, former head of the Party’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, and Chen Zuoer, former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. Zeng would normally be expected to be accorded a prominent position at an event like this, given that Shaw is a major Hong Kong public figure, and Zeng, formerly the head of the Communist Party’s elite Small Leading Group on Hong Kong & Macao Affairs, was for over a decade a crucial official for exerting the Communist Party’s influence over political affairs in Hong Kong. But Zeng was nowhere to be found.
Family Troubles, Investigations
Another indication of the political health of a top Communist Party member in China is how their relatives are doing.
During the investigation of Zhou Yongkang, the former security chief, for example, there have been widespread reports of how his son, Zhou Bin, was at the center of an investigation for corruption. Reports in the Chinese press gave detailed accounts of the shady business deals that Zhou Bin had engaged in, and Zhou Bin’s own network of official and business contacts was also reported about in the press. Arrests and public show trials were held. All of that would have been impossible if the political position of Zhou Yongkang had not already been degraded or lost entirely.
A similar process appears to be starting to play out in the Zeng case. On April 17 the National Audit Office announced that it would begin an audit of the State Grid Corporation, chaired by Liu Zhenya. Liu has been widely linked to Zeng Wei, Zeng Qinghong’s son, through the plundering of the state-owned Shandong Luneng Group, a sprawling industrial conglomerate with billions in assets.
On April 23 Wang Xiaoling, the niece of Zeng Qinghong’s wife Wang Fengqing, was identified in Chinese media reports by her real name and accused of a range of crimes by a defendant in a court case. While propaganda minister of Guangdong Province, Wang was said to have pocketed 70 million yuan ($11.2 million) through shady stock purchases of a newspaper company while it was being acquired and restructured. Wang was said to have often flaunted her ties with Uncle Zeng.
Familial connections are often a source of political capital in China. Given that Zeng was once one of the most powerful officials in the country, such reports, and particularly the identification of his niece by name, would not have been permitted, or would have been subsequently censored, if Zeng retained the political reach he once had.
There is, further, the public humiliation and investigation earlier this year of Song Lin, the former chair of China Resources, an enormous state-owned entity based in Hong Kong set up before the Communist Party took power in China. Though on the surface the chairman of a Hong Kong company, Song Lin had the status of a high-level Communist Party official.
“The Party Committee in charge of Hong Kong and Macau affairs became Zeng Qinghong’s turf during the Jiang Zemin era,” said Cheng Xiaonong, a scholar of the Chinese political system, during a recent Voice of America program. “So moving against Song Lin and that Party Committee means that Xi Jinping has started to seize the territory that Zeng Qinghong controlled in Hong Kong. This is a significant shift.”
In February, overseas Chinese media outlets reported that Zeng Wei, Zeng Qinghong’s son, had been put under arrest upon his return to China. Such websites, which traffic in rumors of political purges, accurately predicted the downfall of Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang before either of their fates had been made official or were accepted by outside analysts.
Society of Friends
The move against Zeng Qinghong represents an extension of Xi Jinping’s purge of a center of power in the Communist Party that for a long time existed separately from the formal and official lines of authority.
The existence of this group became apparent to observers in the transition of power from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, in 2002. The paramount leader in communist China occupies three positions: head of state, head of the Party, and head of the military. In 2002, Jiang Zemin surprised analysts by retaining (until 2004) his role as the head of the Central Military Commission, which controls the armed forces.
Moreover, he expanded the size of the Politburo Standing Committee, from seven to nine, and stacked it with his own men. “Incoming Party Chief Hu Jintao … can only count on Premier Wen Jiabao, the … third-ranking member,” wrote John Tkacik, a former State Department political officer focused on China, in a lengthy 2004 analysis. “The retired Jiang is much more influential in the current 16th Party Congress Politburo than he ever was in the 15th Congress leadership,” he wrote.
This group of men, over the tenure of Jiang and into that of his successor Hu Jintao, formed their own base of power and set of interests. While they kept grip on the levers of political power—controlling in particular the propaganda and security apparatuses—their children enriched themselves through unfettered access to state assets and franchises. Reports, exposes, and anecdotes in Hong Kong political magazines have for years alleged that the family members of these individuals gained control over hundreds of billions of dollars in assets.
Alongside all this, Jiang Zemin was known to fasttrack the promotion of officials who showed a willingness to implement his personal crusade of persecuting the Falun Gong spiritual practice, a campaign that began in 1999 and made use of the full resources of the Chinese state. Jiang’s power extended, if in a somewhat attenuated form, into the second term of Hu Jintao, from 2007 to 2012.
Both Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang owed their careers to the enthusiastic and brutal implementation of the anti-Falun Gong campaign. Sources inside China told Epoch Times, at several junctures during 2012, how the two had plotted to sideline Xi Jinping and seize the ultimate prize. Those plans came undone in the beginning of the year when Wang Lijun, Bo Xilai’s chief of police in the southwestern city of Chongqing, reportedly dressed himself as a woman and fled to the United States Embassy in Chengdu, blowing open the rift at the core of the Party for the world to see.
Bo Xilai was quickly detained on charges of malfeasance and corruption. His wife, Gu Kailai, was also detained and later put through orchestrated court proceedings.
After taking power, Xi saw them both jailed, and then moved against Zhou Yongkang. Zhou, who like Zeng Qinghong is a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, is at the center of a sweeping investigation. His most recent position was the head of the security forces, a powerful position that commands a budget of over $120 billion.
Xi Jinping is reported to have arrested and interrogated Zhou and close family members. A battery of officials with known ties to Zhou, in governmental sectors and industries that he wielded vast influence over—including in the petroleum sector, the energy-rich province of Sichuan, the northeastern province of Liaoning, and the security apparatus—have been publicly purged, and some of them arrested and interrogated.
A Zhou Redux?
Western observers have remarked upon the rare nature of a campaign of this sort: why would Xi Jinping go after Zhou Yongkang, recently one of the most powerful officials in all of China, so soon after gaining office?
Roderick MacFarquhar, a professor at Harvard University and one of the most meticulous analysts of the Chinese Communist Party and its internal dynamics, took up the question in April, during an event at Harvard commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
“We’re seeing within the Communist Party leadership itself an extraordinary struggle,” MacFarquhar said in the concluding remarks of the day. “For the first time in the reform period [post-Mao] … a former Standing Committee member’s family is being put under enormous pressure.”
Zhou Yongkang is likely to be punished under the guise of fighting against corruption, MacFarquhar said, while adding: “It’s unlikely to be just corruption … It’s about the fact that Zhou Yongkang may have taken steps to prevent Xi Jinping from becoming leader.”
According to the information provided by the source, observers should prepare for a repeat of the process, this time against Zeng Qinghong.
With reporting by Lin Feng