Hello, everyone. Welcome to Zooming In China Tea Time. I’m Simone Gao.
Just days ahead of the Chinese New Year, the start to the year of the Tiger, state-owned CCTV and the CCP Disciplinary Inspection Commission revealed their five-part documentary series on Chinese corruption. “Zero Tolerance” features former Chinese officials from behind bars, revealing the causes of their corruption and their deep regret over their crimes against the country.
Those alleged crimes are substantial, and the punishments are even more so. One episode features Hu Huaibang, a former head at China Development Bank, who was sentenced to life in prison for bribery. Wang Fuyu, who said in his episode that “my crazy greed is at its peak, but I don’t know why I want money,” was sentenced one day after his episode aired. The sentence imposed for allegedly accepting 434 million yuan (about 68 million U.S. dollars) in bribes? He received the death penalty, suspended for two years at which point it will be commuted to life in prison.
The premier was broadcast on Saturday, January 15th, during primetime, showing the importance of this campaign—and its reach to the Chinese citizens it hopes to convert. The first episode, titled “Not Losing 1.4 Billion,” focuses on Sun Lijun and sets the tone for the series, with Sun claiming that he “didn’t expect that I would become a destroyer of the construction of the rule of law or fairness and justice.” Sun Lijun was once the vice public security minister and is said to have received bribes in excess of 14 million US dollars. He is also currently facing charges related to stock manipulation and gun possession.
It is the 1.4 billion citizens of China that Xi, according to this propaganda series, is claiming to protect through his anti-corruption campaign. In the beginning of the first episode, Xi says “If you don’t offend hundreds of corrupt officials, you must offend 1.4 billion people.” Clearly, in order to achieve stability for the regime, the majority of the Chinese people need to be pacified. They need to be persuaded. They need to believe that the CCP, and Xi Jinping in particular, are working for them by removing corrupt officials. The series also aims to “kill the chicken to scare the monkey,” as they say in China. It aims to take power and momentum away from any of Sun’s associates who may intend to oppose Xi through the political or legal systems. It says, in essence, that your boss is down. The trend is over. You have no path forward. Obediently disarm and surrender before the 20th National Congress.
Should we believe that Sun Lijun and the others featured in this series completely disarmed and surrendered? I believe so. Analysts are saying that Sun’s indictment has shrunk recently, showing a much smaller list of crimes than that originally reported by the party. That may be because of his cooperation with the party both on this documentary and, potentially, on turning over names of his associates in order to atone for his own wrongdoing. Censorship within the party focuses on political issues, like overly inflated political ambitions, but the party cannot punish opponents on the basis of political opposition. Instead, they bring charges often relating to bribery and often punished by life imprisonment.
Why might Xi have opted to begin this series with Sun Lijun? Perhaps because of the outsized threat he posed to Xi. Sun was the youngest deputy minister of the Ministry of Public Security. He had clear political potential and advantages. Alongside those advantages came ambition. Sun developed a “15-year plan” for himself, striving to improve in five-year increments.
Sun opted for five years chunks because the party congress of the Communist Party of China is held every five years. At that time, CCP officials from central government all the way down to local governments change ranks, and the promotion of officials is rushed during this period. If you are not promoted, you are likely to face a five year wait for another opportunity or, worse, lose the opportunity because you have aged out of the appointment. In the CCP system, cadres of the Communist Party are appointed by age.
In Sun’s case, he designed steps very likely looked like this: in the first five years, when the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China is held in 2022, he would become Minister of the Ministry of Public Security; in the second five years, in 2027, he would become the deputy secretary of the Political and Legal Committee and enter the central politburo; and, in 2032, he would become a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, perhaps even becoming chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. At that point, he would be 64 and would be able to serve one term.
Ambitions such as these would be normal, in a political system where the leader would be replaced after his stated two terms. But that was never Xi Jinping’s intention. And now, because Xi remains in his position and the key positions of the CCP leadership would be stuffed with confidants of Xi Jinping, others who also have their eyes on those positions often find themselves facing corruption charges. Xi will not rotate out his inner circle nor give up power himself. The ambitious have nowhere to go but to quietly fade from politics or be sent to Qincheng Prison on corruption charges. Qingcheng is a prison for jailing only high ranking CCP officials.
The political and legal system is the top priority of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign to eliminate his challengers. Clearly, he will arrange for his own people to ascend to the top of key departments like the Ministry of Public Security which is under the Political and legal committee. While Sun Lijun was never a Xi Jinping confidant, I believe that he initially did try to please Xi in his role as deputy minister. In one example between October and December of 2015, five staff members from Causeway Books (located in Hong Kong) went missing and were believed to be detained in mainland China. The owner was among those kidnapped, and it has been suggested that the detainments came because of the bookstore’s sale of a book titled Xi Jinping and His Six Women. Sun Lijun would have been in a position to oversee those detainments at the time. Unfortunately for Sun, this move did not win Xi’s trust.
With Sun’s 15-year plan at odds with Xi Jinping’s ambitions, Sun Lijun had no political path forward. That would be difficult for a man like Sun to take. But the corruption charges were more likely tied to Sun’s leadership in the asssasination attempt of Xi Jinping. His role in the Ministry of Public Security provided him with access to local public security departments, especially those in Jiangsu, a site of an alleged assassination attempt on Xi Jinping. Others rumored to have played a part in that attempt were also featured in the “Zero Tolerance” documentary as the small gang of Sun Lijun.
But despite this group being named as the gang of Sun Lijun, a deputy minister of the Ministry of Public Security does not have the reach or resources to carry out a coup d’état alone. If the assassination was successful, there would need to be a new regime set to take over, including not only a replacement for Xi Jinping but the entire top leadership of the CCP. It would take players whose rank go beyond the political and legal systems in China to carry out such a coup. Who might those other players be? Because Sun was a member in the “Shanghai clique,” a group led by former CCP general secretary (and Xi Jinping rival) Jiang Zemin. Notable figures in this clique become suspects. Such as Meng Jianzhu, the former head of the political and legal Committee and Zeng Qinghong, former member of the politburo’s standing committee, Jiang Zemin’s right hand man.
Sun’s assasination attempt did not come out of the blue. It represents an escalation of opposition to Xi Jinping in the CCP leadership. The initial coup d’état attempts are believed to begin in the earliest moments of Xi Jinping’s regime. In 2012, Zhou Yongkang, secretary of the Political and Legal Committee, and Bo Xilai, former governor of Liaoning and an ambitious princeling, crafted a plan to oust Xi and make Bo the top leader of China. The plan was exposed, though, leading to Xi Jinping’s vow to vigorously eliminate their influence over the political and legal systems.
Nearly a decade has passed, and Xi’s commitment to his anti-corruption campaign has not ceased. With more than 100,000 people indicted for corruption and more than 1.3 million lower-level officials punished since 2013, why is Xi unable to end the influence of the opposition within the CCP for such a long time?
It is understandable that Xi would be so forceful and persistent in his attempt to end this opposition given that others were plotting his ouster even before he formally took power. However, if all he had done was to round up those involved in that attempt, this likely would have ended. Those at fault were Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai and a very small number of accomplices. Had he punished only the guilty, others would not have given it a second thought.
Instead, Xi chose to purge the political and legal systems of anyone close to or promoted by Zhou. He assumed guilt by proximity. That assumption led to scores of others being punished where there was no crime or for crimes that were common practice even among Xi and his inner circle.
Why do it then? Probably as a show of power, of prestige. He was just coming to power amid disagreement over whether he should even be the general secretary. His power was unstable, in part because of his few political achievements at the local level. With the attempted coup, the spotlight on his lack of authority and overt qualifications for this new role was even brighter. So, he deemed a show of force necessary to establish his rule over the political system of China.
But there is problem. In the current CCP system, top leaders promote those who are below them and, in many cases, those promotions come through connections or interests. If you want to become the mayor of Hangzhou, you must bribe the secretary of the Zhejiang Provincial Party Committee. Often, those bribes are in the tens of millions and are accompanied with an inspection to be sure that the leader finds you loyal. Where does that money come from? It comes from bribes paid to you from those below you or from kickbacks gained from major projects. There is no layer of the chain of CCP commands that is clean.
As the top leaders fell in the anti-corruption campaign, lower-level players tended to join forces—not against Xi, but to defend themselves as one body. And as the anti-corruption campaign expanded, Xi pushed those on the sidelines who were simply looking to protect themselves into an alliance against him. Selective anti-corruption felt like a sword hanging over the heads of these officials who knew it could fall at any time because none of them were clean.
And these people have no national law written in their hearts. Sun Lijun gives an example in “Zero Tolerance,” stating that after he became the deputy minister, he always ran red lights. He did so believing that red lights were meant to restrain ordinary people and, as the deputy minister, he should not be bound by them. This is an attitude that is common in the political and legal system, in ways well beyond the running of red lights. These officials believe there is nothing they cannot do, no matter who it is that is setting the restraints around them. The Sun Lijun clan is known to eavesdrop on the top CCP leadership, they record their conversations and even record videos of their private affairs. So, if these people begin to truly feel threatened, they are likely to take the risk and kill Xi Jinping.
Those same reasons may be driving Xi to become more dangerous and less willing to step down. The more he takes this hard-handed approach to this corrupt system, the more enemies he creates. And the more enemies he creates, the more at risk he becomes.
The 2018 revision of China’s constitution, removing the requirement that the president of the country step down after two five-year terms, ended the peaceful path to a transfer of power. This change affected more than just Xi Jinping himself.
A perfect example is Sun Zhengcai. Sun’s life can be summed up by the phrase “the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He was a rising star in Chinese politics, serving as a member of the politburo and mostly seen as Xi Jinping’s successor as the general secretary of the Party when Xi’s tenure was up. But when Xi decided not to step down, Sun’s existence became intolerable to Xi. Therefore, Sun was charged and convicted of bribery and received a common sentence among Xi’s opposition: life imprisonment.
At a larger scale, the consequence of Xi using only people he knows and trusts from Zhijiang and Fujian provinces where he worked before is that the careers of most officials in the CCP will be negatively affected. Trusting only your own people does not even leave open the opportunity for others to defect to your faction. As a result, rising numbers within the CCP are becoming increasingly alienated, even antagonistic.
That antagonism is likely to hit a breaking point at the upcoming party congress. As I mentioned earlier, every five years brings an intense struggle at the party congress when entire cadres are promoted. Should you miss the promotion at the right age, you are aged out of advancement in the political system and left with nowhere to go. Xi is not about to upset a handful of CCP leadership hopefuls. He is about to alienate thousands and create an even longer list of political enemies. Those who advanced together as cadres and have now been shoved aside as cadres are likely to unite against the Xi Jinping regime.
So long as Xi continues with these tactics, he will continue to create ever-larger numbers of enemies. Doing so will ensure an endless battle against the opposition, one he claims as a war against corruption. Besides this, Xi’s vision of taking the country to a more closed future is at odds with the more reform-minded party majority. Getting rid of Xi Jinping becomes a common interest of all.
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