In the starting episode of In People’s Name, by far the most popular soup opera broadcasted in China this year, a corrupt official defended himself adamantly upon being detained by crying loudly that “I was born to a peasant farmer family”. It turns out that this son of a Chinese peasant farmer family has happily stacked away fully 200 million RMB (€25 million) of cash under the mattress. Unfortunately, this is no playwright’s fantasy. Rather, it is but the artistic representation of a real story of a mid-ranking central-government official in charge of regulating coal mining. According to media reports, several automatic cash-counters burnt out due to overheating while counting this El Dorado in Shangri-La.
Just like the sudden death of the archetypical Caribbean tyrant in Gabriel García Márquez’s magic realism masterpiece El otoño del patriarca, the unexpected fall from grace of Sun Zhengcai, communist party chief of Chongqing Municipality in southwestern China, the youngest in the 25-member Politburo, China’s supreme decision-making body, and yet another son of a Chinese peasant farmer family, set in among an eerie bout of silence followed by an uproar with a vengeance. Mr. Sun, widely rumoured to be the favourite candidate to replace Li Keqiang as China’s next premier, cut his teeth in the murky political waters in the 1990s as a local party official in Beijing’s suburban regions, and was later promoted to be the secretary-general of the communist party committee of Beijing Municipality, before joining Premier Wen Jiabao’s cabinet as the minister of agriculture in late 2006. In barely three years he became the communist party chief of Jilin Province in northeastern China, before being groomed in late 2012 along with Hu Chunhua, presently the communist party chief of Guangdong Province near Hong Kong, to be the two younger-generation members among a usually grey-haired line-up of the Politburo. Mr. Hu and Mr. Sun, according to some seasoned China observers, were loyal disciples of former President Hu Jintao and former Premier Wen Jiabao, respectively, and would form the next duo of China’s power centre in 2022, when President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang are expected to retire.
The script, however, stubbornly refused to unfold as planned. On 15 July, China’s official Xinhua News Agency announced that Chen Min’er, one of President Xi’s closest political allies, has replaced Mr. Sun as Chongqing’s party chief. During the same day’s evening news on the CCTV, China’s predominant state television broadcaster, the camera captured the image of other Politburo members attending the five-yearly National Financial Affairs Conference that was held in Beijing on 14-15 July. Mr Sun’s, however, was conspicuously missing. For the next ten days, he completely disappeared from the public and no one seemed to know of his whereabouts. On 24 July, he was officially declared to be “under investigation due to suspected serious disciplinary violations”, which in the Chinese political lexicon is a euphemism for one’s political disgrace, and usually, if not invariably, leads to some years behind bars. In a spectacular exercise of damnatio memoriae, all of the numerous photos, videos, audios, speech manuscripts and inscriptions of Mr. Sun, once a shining star on China’s political horizon, were erased overnight from official media outlets. In their stead were colourful gossips about his profligate wife, his daughter who attended Cornell University, and several illegal sons he fathered with multiple mistresses.
Mr. Sun is but the latest scalp claimed by China’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign, President Xi’s pet project since he assumed presidency in late 2012. Over the ensuing four years, according to official statistics by the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), well over one million party officials and members had been penalized in one way or another on charges of disciplinary violations, including 222 ministerial or vice-ministerial officials. Such an eye-popping spectacle has not been seen at least since the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. In contemporary China, where the old dream of communism had long been morally bankrupt, the empty slogan of socialism merely a laughing stock, and Mao’s catastrophic practice of Marxist-Leninism’s class struggle theory made spicier with a dose of his knack for China’s imperial court politics had resigned his political legacy to endless controversy, anti-corruption seems to be the only remaining legitimate cause that is able to mobilise popular enthusiasm and therefore could be enlisted as a powerful weapon against one’s political enemies. After all, is there a better scapegoat than corruption on which all policy failings and resulting social malaises could be blamed? It is no coincidence that during the term of office of both former President Jiang Zemin and former President Hu Jintao, three ambitious Politburo members were purged on corruption charges: Mr. Jiang rid himself of Chen Xitong, Beijing’s then party chief; Mr. Hu brought down Chen Liangyu, Shanghai’s then party chief and Bo Xilai, Mr. Sun’s predecessor as Chongqing’s party chief.
This is, however, not the sole political sleight of hand up President Xi’s sleeves, and judging from his first five-year term in office, he is certainly not content with confining his role in history to that of Rhadamanthus in Tartarus in Virgil’s Aeneid. Thanks to his powerful grip on the military, which on his close watch has just undergone nothing less than the most radical reorganization in its history, he has accumulated enormous political capital and never cringed in using them to make sure that his own men, not any of his predecessors’, be ensconced in the most politically vital positions, particularly in the heated run-up to the Communist Party of China’s five-yearly congress that will take place next week. Apart from Mr. Chen, who has replaced Mr. Sun, the other two prominent political nouveau-riches are Beijing’s new party chief and Shanghai’s new mayor. “Performance-oriented promotion system for officials must have one of performance-oriented demotion to boot”, President Xi insisted, suggesting that he is ready to dismiss whoever he deems incompetent to make room for his own picks.
More significantly, by getting Mr. Sun out of his way, he has staged a powerful challenge to an unwritten but widely acknowledged rule of succession within the Party that the current supreme leader will appoint his successor-but-one: Deng Xiaoping designated Hu Jintao, and Jiang Zemin chose Xi Jinping. Such an arrangement of political patronage, by introducing a minimal degree of checks and balances among the Party’s various factions, was expected to put to an end, for once and for all, the endless bloody episodes of China’s dynastic politics that had been going on and on for millennia. For quite a while, it had even been rigorously touted by sycophantic scholars as a more stable and feasible alternative to democratic elections in the West. However, by attacking Mr. Sun, the weaker link of a potential Hu-Sun duo that was anointed by his predecessor, President Xi has made it crystal clear that he refuses to be bound by this succession arrangement, and by extension many other, if not all, unwritten rules such as the age ceiling for members of the Politburo’s standing committee and the term limit for the presidency. Anyone who still believes that President Xi will step down in 2022 should think twice. Until then, that is, China’s anti-corruption campaign may hardly see any sign of abating.
All eyes are now upon the 19th Party Congress that will open next week. Surprises, as usual, are hard to find.
“Xi Jinping May Delay Picking China’s Next Leader, Stoking Speculation”, New York Times, 4 October 2016
“‘One million‘ Chinese officials punished for corruption”, BBC News, 24 October 2016
“China’s Succession Games”, The Diplomat, 24 October 2016
“China’s anti-corruption overhaul paves way for Xi to retain key ally”, Reuters, 4 March 2017
“Reading Xi Jinping”, Foreign Affairs, 4 July 2017
“Curse of Chongqing?”, South China Morning Post, 18 July 2017
“From Political Star to ‘a Sacrificial Object’ in China”, New York Times, 22 July 2017
“Former Political Star in China Is Under Party Investigation”, New York Times, 24 July 2017
Picture 1: Pixabay
Picture 2: By Partidul Social Democrat from Romania [OGL (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/) or CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons