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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.
That’s all for today.Thanks for watching Zooming In China. Please like, share, subscribe and donate to this program if you like my content. Also, head over to my membership site at zoomingin.tv. You can get video/audio formats of my shows, full transcripts, and in-depth reports available only to members. Just $5 a month, or $50 a year and you can cancel anytime. Please check it out.
Hello everyone. Welcome to Zooming In China Tea Time. I’m Simone Gao. I am suffering from allergies on my face so I will not appear on camera this time. Sorry about that.
Dubbed “almost certainly the most dangerous man in the world that most folks have never heard of” by Washington Post columnist Hugh Hewitt, Wang Huning is emerging as a source of intrigue for academic and political leaders trying to understand the rapidly changing tides of Chinese politics. A man notorious for his comfort in the shadows of Chinese presidents who seeks no political limelight for himself, Wang is reported to have carried tremendous influence over the last three leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and to be the central figure behind Xi Jinping’s major policy reforms.
According to an October 2021 article in Palladium, written by a China expert using the pseudonym N.S. Lyons, the “sudden wave of new government policies that are currently upending Chinese life in what state media has characterized as a ‘profound transformation of the country,” policies that are commonly referred to as Xi Jinping’s “Common Prosperity” campaign, are the brainchild of Wang Huning.
Recently, I read Wang Huning’s popular memoir America Against America, written after a 6 month stay in the United States. I have to say his knowledge of Western political philosophy, American history, and American politics went well beyond my expectations, leaving me with the impression that he is a diligent, rigorous and qualified scholar. Despite that theoretical rigor used in his memoir, however, I don’t think he understands the essence of the American order. Does that matter? Yes it does. Wang is now charged with charting a way forward for the world’s second most powerful nation. In that role, he has chosen to view the U.S. as a negative lesson, an example of what not to do when defining China’s path. He is also choosing to define and build China’s strengths in opposition to America’s perceived weaknesses.
With China’s economic size and ambition, any political or economic move it makes will have an impact on the world. We have only to think about the impact that Nazism had on the world to understand that ideas have consequences.
Yet for all Wang’s clear persuasive power with the presidents he has served under, I do not believe he yields as much power as author N.S. Lyons claims. Lyons claims that Xi Jinping’s strength is sufficient to tolerate very smart people around him and that Wang, as the brightest of the bunch, survived into Xi’s regime because of it.
I believe this judgment to be wrong. I don’t believe that Xi Jinping is strong enough to tolerate dissent and highly intelligent people. Instead, he is faction-minded. He trusts and uses only those people from where his old posts were in Zhejiang and Fu Jian province which caused a grave alienation of the rest of the CCP bureaucracy. Wang Huning did not survive into the Xi Jinping regime because of Xi Jinping’s broadmindedness. He survived because of his political cunning, a cunning that has allowed him to gain the trust of three generations of Chinese leaders, especially with Xi Jinping who only trusts his own people.
In Lyons’ reading of the book “America against America”, he found that Wang “marvels at homeless encampments in the streets of Washington DC, out-of-control drug crime in poor black neighborhoods in New York and San Francisco, and corporations that seemed to have fused themselves to and taken over responsibilities of government. Eventually, [Wang] concludes that America faces an ‘unstoppable undercurrent of crisis’ produced by its societal contradictions, including between rich and poor, white and black, democratic and oligarchic power, egalitarianism and class privilege, individual rights and collective responsibilities, cultural traditions and the solvent of liquid modernity. In the end, [Wang believes that] ‘the American economic system has created human loneliness’ as its foremost product, along with spectacular inequality.”
Obviously the American trip had an impact on his views on liberal democracy; that change conveniently fits with the Chinese political shift right after the 1989 democratic movement. After the Tiananmen massacre, the CCP started to crack down on Western liberal thought, believing that was the cause of the democratic movement. A few years later, though, China’s then de facto leader Deng Xiaoping directed the country to open up and began the economic reform. There was no indication, however, that Wang Huning went along with Deng Xiaoping’s vision.
That said, I believe Wang’s different policy prescriptions for three Chinese leaders speaks more to a desire to serve the current regime and ruler than to individual ideological shifts on the part of Wang. To survive through three Chinese leaders, Wang needed to tailor his ideas of governance toward not only the needs of the Communist Party as a whole but also the unique preferences of each leader. The political and social shifts now being attributed to Wang may not be fully his own but rather represent adaptations made to pacify each new leader.
But whether the political ideologies are Wang’s own or are adaptations to the thinking of his employers, it remains true that this key advisor to three generations of CCP leaders holds great influence over China’s future directions and, as such, is worthy of study.
Much of the ideology that Wang Huning consistently holds is centered on the idea that value systems shape a country’s political system and when the central values of a nation crumble, the nation itself will follow. In one of his most cited works, his 1988 article “China’s Changing Political Culture,” Wang argues for an urgent review of how Chinese society’s “’software (culture, values, attitudes) shapes political destiny as much as its ‘hardware’ (economics, systems, institutions).”
Wang argued that “Since 1949, we have criticized the core values of the classical and modern structures but have not paid enough attention to shaping our own core values.” He went on to say that “There are no core values in China’s most recent structure,” making a daring negative claim about China’s socialism with Chinese characteristics.
In America Against America, Wang turns that critical eye toward the political ideologies and practices of the United States. He quotes extensively from American conservative political philosopher Alan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom advocated for the promotion of Western cultural traditions and civilizations, praising the cultural and spiritual creations of Plato, Socrates, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Shakespeare, Bacon and others. He believed in the use of these heritages to spread the Western civilization and cultural spirit.
Wang, however, believed that America was trending toward a deviation from those Western cultural traditions and toward nihilism. He argued that nihilism as the new American way would have a fatal impact on the American spirit and would eventually impact the entire democratic system.
I believe that Wang Huning’s insight into this U.S. ideological trend was both profound and rare in 1988. Wang’s background as a successful professor and political philosopher combined with his rare opportunity to observe the U.S. first-hand at some of its elite educational institutions gave him the ability to see broadly and deeply. In doing so, he hit the nail on the head: America was built on an idea, one so central to its fabric and identity that if that idea disappears, the social system and national identity disappear along with it. Impressive, right?
He got the basic trend right. His understanding of why, however, reveals his limitations.
Wang Huning quoted a substantial portion of Bloom’s argument in his book, but he left out a key argument of the author. Bloom believed that American nihilism developed from the relativity of values instilled in college education at the time. The theory of value relativity says that there is no objective standard of right or wrong in this world. All good and bad, right and wrong are relative and subjective. One culture may have one set of criteria for knowing what is right or wrong, while another culture has different criteria. Because there is no objective standard, any value could be accepted. Which philosophical school or ideology holds the view of value relativism? Marxism. It stands in opposition to the philosophical thinking of the Eastern and Western traditions. Judeo-Christianity, Greco-Roman culture, and Eastern philosophies such as Buddhusim, Taoism and Confucianism all believe that there is an objective and eternal moral order in this world, and its standards come from God or heaven.
Why didn’t Wang Huning mention the theory of value relativity? Because his academic foundation is Marxism. While he affirms Bloom’s argument that America is moving toward nihilism, he cannot accept the argument that the move toward nihilism is because of value relativity and the loss of faith in God.
This has a profound impact on his research and perspective on the United States. I believe that his core idea, that the value system shapes the political system, is correct. Yet, Wang Huning did not explain why the quality and origin of such a value system matters. That is a direct effect of his intrinsic belief in the relativity of value, the lack of an objective and eternal right or wrong. He believes that any value system that could be applied to his society and bring economic prosperity and strength to the country is a good value system. He further believes that China can create a more efficient and effective value system than the United States.
This idea is very dangerous. It may lead China once again to the old path of so-called social and human nature transformation that has happened both inside and outside of China. The Cultural Revolution is a perfect example. It meant to better the human nature of the bourgeoisie and intellectuals by eliminating the traditional Chinese culture they were immersed in and sending these people to the countryside, forcing them to do hard labor so that they can shape the proletarian consciousness.
From the perspective of conservative thinking, Wang Huning’s theory of a value system that excludes moral judgment fails to grasp the essence of the American order. He does not understand what makes America great; He also does not understand what would make America decline. Therefore, his remedy for China that was meant to avoid America’s mistakes is destined to fail.
That’s all for today. Thanks for watching Zooming In China Tea Time. Please like, share, subscribe and donate to this program if you like my content. Also, head over to my membership site at zoomingin.tv. You can get video/audio formats of my shows, full transcripts, and in-depth reports available only to members. I will also do live Q & A shows with members on the website. Just $5 a month, and you can cancel anytime. Please check it out.