Zhou Yongkang

Graft probe of Zhou Yongkang clears Xi Jinping's path to wider reform

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 July, 2014, 4:26am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 September, 2014, 6:52pm

Beijing has finally confirmed that former domestic security tsar Zhou Yongkang is to be officially investigated for corruption. This suggests a consensus among current and retired leaders that clears the way for them to focus on major policy questions at their annual secret enclave at the Beidaihe resort, traditionally held next month. Zhou's prosecution ditches the decades-old rule against holding current or former members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee to account for economic or social wrongdoings. Likely criminal proceedings against him will serve notice that no one is beyond the law.

Zhou's initial power base was the China National Petroleum Corp, where he rose through the ranks to head the company in 1996. He extended it with appointments as party chief of resources-rich Sichuan province in 1999 and then as minister for public security in 2002, followed by elevation to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007.

His downfall marks a further consolidation of power by President Xi Jinping who, on becoming party leader in late 2012, declared a crackdown on corruption to be a matter of life and death for the party. It was preceded early this month by the expulsion from the party of recently retired vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission Xu Caihou.

Xi deserves credit for pushing on with his crackdown in the face of scepticism and cynicism. As a result, he is now arguably China's most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping . Given the alliance between Zhou and disgraced former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai , sceptics have questioned whether the crackdown was ultimately about consolidating Xi's power, or a political show to placate widespread anger over corruption. Others see it as supporting a reform agenda, including economic restructuring, to which corrupt officials and special interest groups remain opposed.

As Beijing plans to use Zhou's downfall to bolster efforts to improve the rule of law, the main theme of the party's fourth plenary session to be held in October, it should make his trial public as evidence of intent. In this respect, a People's Daily commentary that Zhou would not be the last "tiger" to be investigated for corruption sends a strong message. If the party is to tame graft, the sooner it undertakes long-delayed political, economic and legal reforms the better. For a start, the focus on the wealth acquired by Zhou's family should strengthen the case for top officials to publicly declare their assets.