The road to the 20th Party Congress is a saga of fallen power-centres, factional betrayals, and overturned loyalties
Xi Jinping continues to remain the most addictive enigma in international political discourse. He has delivered on his next act with the downfall of China’s former Justice Minster, Fu Zhenghua due to corruption charges. Since Fu played a pivotal role in bringing down Xi’s first “tiger”, Zhou Yongkang, his fall signals the beginning of Xi’s plans to cover up his tracks ahead of the 20th Party Congress. Therefore, this event heralds the second phase in Xi’s mission to dominate the political-security (zhengfa) apparatus of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The first part of this meticulously crafted orchestra began with the fall of China’s former security tsar, Zhou Yongkang, and served as a prelude to Xi’s long-drawn venture to cut off his umbilical cord with his political cradle, the Shanghai clique. Xi’s choice of the anti-corruption campaign as his primary weapon is itself laden with significant strategic nuances. As the CCP had for long recognised corruption as an existential threat, adopting an unbridled anti-corruption programme at the core of his governance model allowed Xi to garner support from the party elders for his initial actions. In fact, by 2013 Xi wasn’t yet powerful enough to have taken on Zhou without the blessings of the party elders.
Similarly, the political-legal apparatus has been singled out as the most prominent and sustained battlefield as this arm of the party has direct bearing on the “political security” of the CCP regime. Moreover, the Zhengfa system is the one where the influence of Zhou Yongkang was the most pronounced.
From 2007-2012, Zhou represented the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (CPLAC) — the apex body of the Zhengfa system on the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). Before that, he was a politburo member between 2002-2007 and simultaneously served as the Minister of Public Security. As such, Zhou sat at the triumvirate of three powerful positions within the party, the party’s security apparatus, and the state security machinery. In fact, barring Hua Guofeng and Wang Fang, no other Minister of Public Security had by far held concurrent positions within the Party’s organisational set-up. This allowed Zhou to entrench his proteges within the Zhengfa system. Since the beginning of the anti-corruption campaign, at least three of his proteges serving as the vice ministers of public security have come under the corruption net. These include Sun Lijun, Meng Hongwei, and Li Dongsheng.
Zhou’s penetration within China’s political-legal apparatus could well have been one of the primary reasons behind Jiang Zemin’s approval of Xi Jinping’s actions against Zhou. As an astute politician, Jiang well understood the importance of retaining control over the Zhengfa system in a country undergoing rapid social and economic transformation. He even exercised this control in the Hu Jintao administration by first getting Luo Gan, the then Secretary of the CPLAC, elevated to the PBSC. This was achieved by expanding the PBSC membership from seven to nine members. Zhou represented a continuum in this Jiang Zemin scheme of things.
In order to exert supreme authority over the Zhengfa system and prevent any machinations designed for outside interference, Xi Jinping once again reduced the strength of the PBSC to seven members and demoted the CPLAC head to the politburo. Both of Zhou’s successors in CPLAC, Meng Jiangzhu and Guo Shengkun have been members of the politburo, and not the standing committee.
At the 20th Party Congress, Wang Xiaohong and Chen Yixin are tipped to be promoted as heads of the Ministry of Public Security and the CPLAC respectively. As both these men belong to the Xi Jinping faction, their promotion indicates that Xi’s control over the Zhengfa system is now complete and absolute. It is exactly for this reason that the likes of Fu Zhenghua who perhaps were all too aware of the murky secrets of this long battle need to be eliminated. The next target in this line appears to be Huang Ming, who was removed from the Ministry of Public Security along with Fu in 2018. This puts the fate of Wang Qishan, China’s Vice President and the man who by all means knows the most about Xi Jinping once again open to speculation.
Any attack on Wang would be regarded as yet another on the powerful faction within China’s elite politics and might generate a great deal of disconcertion among them. The road to the 20th Party Congress is a saga of fallen power-centres, factional betrayals, and overturned loyalties — all dedicated to a man’s relentless pursuit of his “China Dream”.