Zhou Yongkang, the then Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of security, during the 18th Communist Party Congress on November 14, 2012 in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File)

A most extraordinary move in China

By Jane Macartney

China’s ruling Communist Party has just announced it will put on trial its most senior official to be arrested for corruption since the Party swept to power more than 65 years ago.

It is a part of a campaign by Party chief and President Xi Jinping to prove that China, at last, has a leader determined to root out bribery.

And cleaning up the Communist Party is a major element in his drive to achieve his two greatest ambitions — ensuring the Party rules China for many more years and making himself the most powerful leader to lead that party in decades.

The trial is a most extraordinary move.

This is a country where entry to the 87-million-member Party is rather like joining a secret brotherhood, with initiation meaning a job — and rising influence — for life.

Unprecedented

Once at the very top, you can get away with a great deal because everyone trusts that colleagues will not risk immunity by informing on their own.

China’s relatively new Party boss is showing he has very different ideas.

Only two years into his 10-year job, he has not just shaken up tradition, he has caused an earthquake. It is through his determination that one of his closest former colleagues, retired security chief Zhou Yongkang, will find himself being led in handcuffs into a northern Chinese courtroom within weeks.

This is unprecedented.

Mr Zhou faces charges that include corruption and leaking state secrets — crimes that carry the death penalty.

It is a spectacular fall for an official who was once one of the nine most powerful men in China — a member of the Standing Committee of the Party’s ruling Politburo.

An unwritten understanding had seemed to exist that any leader who had reached that pinnacle of power would be allowed a quiet retirement, and any misdemeanors would be ignored. The President, exerting his increasing power, has ripped up that understanding.

Pinnacle of power

The accused is not the only official of such seniority to have abused his position for financial gain.

But Mr Zhou made himself vulnerable before the current President took office with a rare political miscalculation that may have alienated his allies.

He was the only leader to support the ambitious, outspoken and charismatic provincial leader Bo Xilai, who is serving life in prison after his wife’s murder of a British businessman exposed his own corrupt activities.

Jailing Mr Bo was sensational. But he was small fry compared with Mr Zhou’s alleged corruption — in the billions of dollars compared with a couple of million by Mr Bo — not to mention the shock of jailing a cadre who had reached the pinnacle of power.

Who’s in charge

Mr Zhou’s trial, which officials say will be open, is certain to be the most gripping show on television in years. Ordinary Chinese will have the opportunity to see the Party turn on one of its own.

It’s a virtual certainty that Mr Zhou, already vilified in the state-run media for keeping mistresses and other lurid offences, will get a heavy sentence.

The President is doubtless determined that his people will get a glimpse of the spectacle.

Opposition to the President in his campaign to purge Mr Zhou from among fellow top Communists must have been fierce: it took a year from the first rumors that the retired security chief was in trouble to his actual public disgrace.

The trial will show just who is in charge.

Mr Zhou may be the highest-ranking official to face judicial punishment for corruption. He will not be the last.


Jane Macartney

Jane Macartney worked as a foreign correspondent for The Times and Reuters. She was the Times correspondent in China for six years and lived in Japan, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, Singapore, Hong Kong and London when working for Reuters. She reported on the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing and traveled to Tibet during periods of unrest there. She is author of part of a book on the 1989 student movement in China and contributor to a book on the Afghan war.

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