Zhou Yongkang

Fall of Zhou Yongkang no cause for hope of change

Chang Ping says the fall of Zhou Yongkang is a straightforward purge, not the kind of power struggle that opens the door for political change. The system to 'maintain stability' is still in place

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 August, 2014, 7:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 September, 2014, 7:05pm

In some media reports, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection investigation of Zhou Yongkang has been described as signifying the most serious power struggle in the Communist Party since the Cultural Revolution. This is hardly true. During the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement of 1989, an intense tug of war was going on between one faction that insisted on suppression of the protesters, led by Li Peng , and the faction advocating communicating with the protesters, led by Zhao Ziyang .

Zhou's fall from grace could not by any stretch be seen in the same light as the attempt to end the Cultural Revolution or the June 4 crackdown. The removal of Zhou - once one of China's most powerful men - is a straightforward purge, a case of one faction getting rid of a rival in the name of fighting corruption.

By contrast, during the time of the Cultural Revolution and June 4, the opposing camps had distinctly different visions for China; whichever side won changed China forever. Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms and opening up changed the political landscape created by Mao Zedong . Later, his decision to side with Li Peng in the handling of the 1989 students' democracy movement killed a golden opportunity for China to embrace modern democracy.

If Zhou Yongkang could be said to represent a political vision, it was of a China where public security authorities would become so powerful that all levels of public security bureau chiefs would become members of standing committees; where the public security apparatus is more powerful than the law courts and prosecutors in the judicial system, allowing it to act without any scruples to "maintain stability". In this dark vision for China, anybody who dares to press a legal claim or try to petition the higher authorities would be brutally suppressed, "black jails" would open up all across the country, and the whole system would be merely a cover for corrupt officials.

However, there are three problems with this. First, building a system to maintain stability is in line with the policy of creating a harmonious society as hailed by former president Hu Jintao , and Zhou was only an executor of this policy.

Second, there is no proof that the law courts and procuratorates are more capable than the public security authorities in safeguarding judicial independence and justice. If anything, the courts and state prosecutors have also acted as hatchet men in the persecution of dissidents.

Third, not only does Xi Jinping have no intention to deviate from the party's line to "maintain stability", in fact he has imposed even harsher controls to suppress dissidents and muzzle the news media.

Zhou supported the "beat the black" campaign by Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun in Chongqing . But to Bo's supporters, his intention was not to root out syndicated crime, as the campaign's name suggests. Bo was in fact targeting the powerful and wealthy in an attempt to institute social justice, his supporters said. This crusader image has nothing to do with Zhou.

Incidentally, it is an image that Xi Jinping's supporters have seized on to eulogise him. After all, this is the most persuasive reason one can find to win over public support for the politics of "blood and iron".

Indeed, a power struggle can open the door for political openness, as seen in Deng Xiaoping's rise to power after the Cultural Revolution and Lee Teng-hui's election as Taiwanese president after the martial law was lifted. However, as history has proven, power struggles do, in most cases, strengthen totalitarianism.

We have seen this happen both in Leon Trotsky's fight for revolutionary direction in the Soviet Union and in the "Night of the Long Knives", in which Hitler ordered the murder or execution of members of the paramilitary Nazi storm troopers assault division. Closer to home, Mao Zedong won applause for executing corrupt senior officials Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan, but in the end the executions served only to establish his dictatorship.

The mouthpieces of the Chinese Communist Party have painted this case of in-fighting to be a victory in the crackdown on corruption, to general public applause. However, not everyone who cheers the move believes this is the whole truth.

Media practitioners and law scholars clearly know the truth, but they have just played dumb in exchange for more space to speak out. So they tempered their praise with calls for a rethinking of the present system. Perhaps, even though the authorities have shown no sign of wanting to change the stability maintaining system built by Zhou, these journalists and scholars want to believe so.

This is the manner whereby media people and scholars in China usually express their opinions. The situation itself proves that history has not been progressively evolving in China.

They should understand that, since the closing days of the Cultural Revolution, there has been a kind of a civil society awakening in China.

People registered their disgust and opposition to political events through underground publications and incidents like the April 5, 1976 protest in Tiananmen. This gave Deng Xiaoping and his faction some room to stretch their political muscle. Another good example is Taiwan's democratic transition, which was powered by social opposition movements.

Such social mobilisations are critical to pushing for change in society.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese