China: Trouble at the top?

Zhou Yongkang Zhou Yongkang is responsible for internal security

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Has China's top leadership been split by the purging of rising star Bo Xilai and the political waves that has caused?

And is it now covering up to preserve a facade of unity ahead of the major leadership change due this autumn?

The machinations of the Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee, the nine people who run China day to day, are always kept secret to ensure a sense of stability in this country of 1.3 billion.

For the Communist Party that's especially important now, ahead of the power handover - a time deemed highly sensitive.

But today no fewer than four newspapers, including the Legal Daily, carry lengthy front page reports about a speech given by China's hugely powerful security chief Zhou Yongkang. The Communist Party's mouthpiece the People's Daily covers it on page two.

In it Mr Zhou, long seen as a hardliner, speaks of the dangers of Western, democratic influences undermining the rule of the Communist Party, saying "we must have a clear head and a clear-cut stand to confidently boycott those trains of thoughts that attempt to Westernise China, separate China and bring chaos to China".

What's interesting is not so much the content of the speech, which isn't new, but the prominence it is given. Photographs of Mr Zhou, one of the members of the Standing Committee, appear on the qq news website.

'Rumour mill'

Observers of China sometimes point to a variant of the old adage "there's no smoke without a fire". They say if the propaganda chiefs insist something is the case, and go to great lengths to do so, then the opposite may be what's happening.

So is this propaganda offensive designed to give the impression that Mr Zhou is still very much an active player in the Standing Committee? And is the truth that he has lost his fight for political survival?

The rumour mill in Beijing has been churning for weeks with suggestions that Mr Zhou has been locked in a power struggle.

Start Quote

There seems to be a strong consensus... that they must pull out all the stops to boost security and stability”

End Quote Willy Lam China analyst

The Financial Times said on 20 April that "numerous sources... believe Mr Zhou is fighting for his job". I wrote about how there were even rumours of an attempted coup by Zhou Yongkang and supporters of Bo Xilai.

At the weekend the Financial Times reported that, according to three senior Communist Party members and diplomats, Mr Zhou has now been stripped of his role overseeing internal security because he was the only one of the Standing Committee members to have argued in favour of Bo Xilai.

The paper says he will not officially be fired as he is due to step down with the majority of the other senior leaders in a few months and the Communist Party does not want to be seen to be divided.

So Mr Zhou may have fallen, we don't know. But what is the significance if he has?

'Internal security'

The Financial Times says one of its sources has "characterised the current political strife and the purge of Mr Bo as 'a symptom of the ideological struggle caused by disagreement over which direction the country should go in'. Some officials within the party, including Premier Wen Jiabao, are trying to push through political reforms that would move China towards Western-style democracy while hardliners, including Mr Zhou, are opposed to such a move."

That's an optimistic reading. But the informative Sinocism blog gives a useful antidote "for those who think this somehow means a victory for the oft-referenced, rarely (never?) seen liberals/reformers/softliners". It points to analysis by the long-time China watcher Willy Lam that prospects for political or legal reform are dim.

In the Jamestown Foundation's China Brief Mr Lam catalogues how China's vast law-enforcement apparatus amassed huge power under Zhou Yongkang, especially since the 2008 Olympics and the unrest in Tibetan areas that year.

As Chair of the Political and Legal Commission, Mr Zhou has been in control of the police, the secret police, the prosecutors and the courts, and a giant network of informants. He also shared joint control over militia and paramilitary forces with military authorities.

Willy Lam points out that China's internal security forces now have a bigger published budget than China's military does. The budget has grown from 514.0bn yuan ($81.3bn) in 2010 to 701.7bn yuan ($111.1bn) this year. China's senior leaders oversaw and approved the build-up.

Mr Lam goes on to say that all the signs are that this focus on internal security and stability will continue to be one of the Communist Party's main priorities.

He writes: "As things stand, there seems to be a strong consensus among the Standing Committee members - including Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, who are expected to form the axis of the upcoming Fifth-Generation leadership - that they must pull out all the stops to boost security and stability."

If you want evidence for this, he says, look no further than the crackdown now taking place on any who may have helped the blind activist Chen Guangcheng escape his house arrest and flee to the US embassy last month, causing huge embarrassment for China's internal security forces.

Damian Grammaticas Article written by Damian Grammaticas Damian Grammaticas China correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    China is "talking" to Japan about disputed islands, leaning on the Phillipines about Scarborough Shoal and complaining about a new US military presence in Australia. Rows over borders with South Korea have become commonplace. All four have military assistance treaties with the US.
    If any of these turns into shooting, a war between the US and China becomes a distinct possibility. I suggest we have more to worry about than Chinese internal politics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    I was just watching BBC News 24 in my Beijing Hotel room, this story came on and the TV went blank, when it came back on it was the beginning of the next story, no other channel was affected. Someone is worried enough by this to censor the Western media.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    However you want. Whatever you like. China is not interested in Western Democratic Reform ever. China want it reform in its own way. Its own Chinese Style. Not Western ways. No Western style. So forget about it now the better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    I'm glad the BBC is sprucing up Xi Jinping's image, its really becoming a branch of Xinhua.

  • Comment number 139.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    135 Bluesberry
    The UK has had a 'campaign to “clean up” foreigners' for several years now. The methods used by some of the people employed by the government haven't been as humane as they should have been, so pperhaps we should think twice about throwing this particular stone.

    Your last sentence is spot on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    Mr Grammaticus missed the salient point in the 'escape' of the blind Mr Chen from the vast security net...that the escape was enabled by forces loyal to Premier Wen and was done to put a lot of pressure on the head of security, Mr Zhou (a supporter of Bo). As things have turned out the embarrasment regarding Mr Chen's odd escape is more so because he really isn't sure why he did it or where to go. But what has happened is that Premier Wen has been able to shaft Mr Zhou, which was the whole point of the exercise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    Just because group of Communist Party members have written to President Hu Jintao asking him to sack leading politician Zhou Yongkang, doesn't necessarily mean there is trouble at the top.
    You think there has been no flack about US, Russian, or even UK leaders? I consider these events internal problems that the Chinese will sort without western help or prejudice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    Perhaps, Beijing authorities consider the start of a 100-day campaign to “clean up” foreigners more important. “3 Have-Not” categories - no valid visa, no valid residence permit, or (where applicable) no valid work permit. Foreigners must carry passports & accommodation registration documents at all times per Chinese regulations. Capital has reported 13,000 cases of illegal entry, overstaying & illegal employment.
    Different priorities do not necessarily mean trouble at the top.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    @PiggyLover62 @Muishkin @whyme44

    Thanks for your reactions to my posted comments though to @whyme44 - I do believe in the freedom to move around the world for everyone rather than putting up legal walls to keep out the outside world.

    It is an unpleasant truth that if the majority of the comments reacting to the Grammaticas article were posted on a china microblog, the consequences would be, at best, an uncomfortable meeting with Mr Zhou Yong-Kang's representatives.

    This is why the BBC and other western news media, based on the rule of law that allows free expression, are so important.

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    China’s ruling Communist Party is considering delay in its upcoming 5-year congress by a few months amid internal debate over the size & makeup of this top decision-making body. Party is struggling to finalize a once-in-a-decade leadership change. Two most senior posts, of president & premier, are not considered in much doubt. But any delay in the congress, no matter the official reason, would likely fuel speculation of infighting over the remaining seats in 9-member politburo standing committee which rules China.

  • Comment number 132.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    muadib2 @ 60 says:
    "China has a feudal system masquerading as a communist state - hence $111bn for their MI5/Police equivalent."

    So is that good or bad?

    Population of China = 1.3bn

    That means they spend $85.4 yuan per person per annum = £8.54
    (1 GBP = 10 yuan)

    How does that compare with the UK for policing and security services?

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    128. emb97 rants:

    "FelipeinSpain .. (and others) .. sound suspiciously like 'glove puppets' operated by the very same Chinese intelligence apparatus featured in the article..."

    Having read the remarks you refer to, they are simply counter to your opinion - but factual - you have a problem with that?

    "..(they) .. are often invoked to counter perceived criticism of the Chinese government apparatus in the international media, and usually betray themselves by the naive propaganda and disinformation they habitually push..."

    Your statement sounds like MI5 talk to me - maybe you're the puppet?

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    @128 emb97 Why so cynical? Most of the positive comments come from people who have lived and worked in China. Some are over the top and maybe don't look closely enough at what's happening there, but from my 12+ years there I can say that the Chinese in general, i.e. apart from the minority who complain to foreign media, have a strongly positive attitude towards their country. They don't like the corruption but are willing to live with it for the time being because their standards of living are rising and there are opportunities for people who work hard and keep their noses clean.

  • Comment number 128.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    I would be interested to know the % of unemployment in China, because I don't see many in the 8 months i've been here, so the 1000s waiting at the door to do others jobs I think may be a exageration.

  • Comment number 126.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    Work ethic? What work ethic dude? This comment can only tell me two things... You never left the Iberia or you are doing the leg work for Beijing. :) Which one is it?
    Workers in China stay at work till the boss leaves and chat on QQ or surf RenRen till after the boss leaves. And usually the boss is having lunch with there friends across the road complaining how hard they are working.
    These people have no work rights. If they say something they will get fired because there are another 1000 or 10k at the door willing to do what they complain about. They work for nothing and they are nothing...

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    Felipe cut the propaganda! Something tells me you have the same IP as I do. China has only benefited since it has opened up to the capitalist western world. The government has taken act of the communist countries of Eastern Europe and decided they didn't want to go like that.
    If China stays a dictatorship is going to suffer... the signs are everywhere, primarily incompetency and cronyism.
    But you know the funny part? The children of the upper echelons are pushing for the change. And I love it!


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