In China’s world of public opinion guidance, everything is just fine and dandy until we’re told it’s not. That, at least, is the ideal. Thunder might roll across China’s microblogs, but until those who exercise political control over the media are good and ready for a storm, the waters must appear perfectly calm on major political stories. So it was with Bo Xilai (薄熙来), and so it might prove with Zhou Yongkang (周永康), the ninth-ranked member of China’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee, whose fate is now the subject of intense speculation outside China.
In early March, as the annual National People’s Congress was in session, there seemed to be little more than ripples surrounding Bo Xilai weeks after an embarrassing episode in which his former police chief, Wang Lijun (王立军), sought refuge in the American consulate in Chengdu. As he addressed an audience at the Great Hall of the People, Bo seemed poised, though the uncharacteristic caution suggested turbulence just below the surface.
The storm came full force on April 10 and 11, as the official Xinhua News Agency issued three notices that signaled a dramatic change in Bo’s political fortune. He is now under investigation for unspecified “serious discipline violations,” and his wife is a chief suspect in the alleged murder of a British national. He has become a political pariah, used by the Party (or perhaps more accurately, by his political opponents) to shore up the Party’s image of clean governance and rule of law.
Will the next political storm pulverize Zhou Yongkang, who is known to have been one of Bo Xilai’s closest allies, and around whom rumors swirled of a coup attempt in late March?
The Financial Times has reported that Zhou is already facing a probe over possible disciplinary violations, and the South China Morning Post quotes a source today as saying that a working group charged with investigating financial issues “relating to Bo and Zhou has already arrived in Hong Kong.”
In today’s edition of Taiwan’s Apple Daily, Jiang Chunnan ( 江春男) jumps the gun and refers to Zhou Yongkang as “the biggest sacrifice of the Bo case.”
[Former President] Jiang Zemin (江泽民) retired but did not withdraw [from politics]. He and [former Standing Committee member] Zeng Qinghong (曾庆红) have placed a lot of hindrances before Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, and Hu has used the Bo case to further cancel out the power of the Jiang faction, particularly in the case of Zhou Yongkang (周永康), this secretary of the CCP’s Politics and Law Committee who was pulled up by Jiang Zemin and has a hold on the police apparatus and the power of stability preservation, and who is Bo Xilai’s most important political ally. He [Zhou Yongkang] is the biggest sacrifice of the Bo case. Moreover, there is now greater validity to Hu’s holding on the post as chairman of the Central Military Commission because of the Bo case.
All of this news and speculation outside China contrasts starkly with Zhou Yongkang’s image as it continues to play out in China’s media. He is a man busy with the responsibilities of office, meeting overseas leaders and urging on the ranks below in China’s police and judicial systems.
In China today, Zhou Yongkang — whose official business reportedly took him on an inspection tour of Hubei province from April 18 to 20 — appears in just three newspapers, all in Hubei province. They include Hubei Daily, the province’s official Party mouthpiece, Chutian Metropolis Daily, a commercial spin-off of Hubei Daily, and Changjiang Daily, the official Party mouthpiece of the top leadership in the city of Wuhan.
Zhou appears on the front page of today’s Hubei Daily, with two prominently placed photographs of him smiling as he makes his tour. In the paper’s commercial spin-off, Chutian Metropolis Daily, a large headline at the top of the front page announces Zhou’s visit, but readers are directed to page two, where the report appears.
While news of Zhou’s visit to Hubei did not appear in the People’s Daily or other central-level Party media, concluding on the basis of this alone that Zhou is being at once featured and sidelined would be premature. But of course it’s tempting to suppose that he’s playing a high-wire act, like that unrelated photo on the front page of today’s Chutian Metropolis Daily.
Zhou was in the news last week (on April 18-19) after meeting in Beijing on April 17 with a senior Communist Party of Cuba leader, Victor Gaute Lopez. Coverage of that meeting did appear on the front page of the overseas edition of the People’s Daily two days later, but not in the official China edition of the People’s Daily on either April 18 or 19.
The very same day as his meeting with Lopez, Zhou reportedly held a so-called “judicial agency construction summary and commendation videophone conference” in which he addressed those “on the front lines” of “judicial agency construction” and “represented the Central Committee of the CCP and the State Council in commending 100 ‘national model judicial agencies’.” News of this videophone conference was reported by both the official China News Service and the Economic Daily on April 18.
If the news being reported outside of China has any basis, Zhou Yongkang could already be the political walking wounded. But until the top leadership is ready to weather another political storm, they will no doubt do their best to give the impression that everything is business as usual.