Xi has indeed targeted numerous tigers, but all of them were wounded ones. Those who claim Xi used the anti-corruption campaign as a weapon against his enemies and other factions in the party and that Xi is extremely powerful need to answer a simple question: why has no other current Politburo member, until Sun Zhengcai in July 2017, been targeted by the anti-corruption campaign? Until Sun’s fall, Xi was the only General Secretary in almost 30 years who didn’t take down a Politburo member in his first term. Dozens of Central Committee member have been charged, but the Central Committee is a big body, with 205 members and 171 alternate members. The far more selective Politburo was immune. If Xi was all-powerful and the anti-corruption campaign was his power play, then surely Xi would have targeted other members of the Politburo, the ones who hold the real power, not just retired elders or Central Committee members. Yet, not one of the 25 Politburo members fell for four and a half years.
Maybe they were all clean? The anti-corruption campaign revealed something interesting: out of the 25 members of the 17th Politburo, 4 (Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Xu Caihou, Guo Boxiong) were corrupt. Are we to believe that almost 20% of the previous Politburo was corrupt, but the current Politburo is all clean? Are people born in the early 1940s more corrupt than those born 5 years later? It doesn’t make much sense.
Odds are that at least some of the current Politburo members have some skeletons in the closet. It’s impossible to believe that they don’t have at least something in their entire career that Xi and Wang could have used against them, if they wanted to. It could have been something as simple as accepting a bottle of wine from a thankful citizen, sometime back in the ’90s. If Xi was all-powerful and bent on doing away with enemies from other factions, he would have hit the Politburo. In fact, he would have hit the PSC as well.
So why didn’t Xi do it? Because this would have completely destroyed the system. Xi wasn’t on a one-man crusade, but he was implementing a policy of the party. The chaos and infighting of the Cultural Revolution has left a strong mark on China. The leaders of the party have struggled, in the decades since, to maintain a semblance of unity and to avoid chaos. Taking down 4-5 members of the Politburo would start an open war. The Chinese political system would be thrown into chaos and the anti-corruption campaign would truly become a power play. As much as there were rumors of current Chinese leaders being afraid they might become targets of the anti-corruption campaign, pretty much everybody has been safe. Even retired elders have been spared.
A lot has been made of Zhou Yongkang’s investigation and arrest. The last leader to purge a PSC member (sitting, instead of retired) was Deng Xiaoping. Zhou’s arrest is one piece of evidence of Xi’s power. But there is another important piece of evidence: there was no other important retired elder who was jailed (except for the two army chiefs). Out of dozens of such former PSC or Politburo members, none were targeted. For years there were rumors that Zeng Qinghong, Jiang Zemin’s right-hand man, would be next. Yet nothing happened. Zeng is still free. If Xi was so powerful and the anti-corruption campaign was a political strategy, why didn’t he target any other former PSC member?
The answer is probably simple: because Xi isn’t acting alone, but carrying out the party’s mandate. All the information we have points to the fact that Xi consulted the retired elders before targeting Zhou and received their approval. Xi didn’t do things on his own, but as part of a party strategy. This is the reason no other elder and only one current Politburo member was targeted.
A fallen ally
Another myth of the anti-corruption campaign is that it has targeted politicians from opposing factions, spearing Xi’s allies. But what about Huang Xingguo? Huang was an old associate of Xi, having served as Vice Governor of Zhejiang, while Xi was Governor. Huang was probably a key player for Xi: he became Party Secretary of Tianjin in December 2014. His promotion was made possible by the investigation against Ling Jihua, who was replaced in his position by the previous Party Secretary of Tianjin. Anybody else could have been chosen to lead the United Front Work Department, which wasn’t normally led by a Politburo member. But Sun Chunlan, the Party Secretary of Tianjin, was the one chosen. It might seem a weird choice, until we understand that this opened up the Tianjin Party Secretary position, which was filled by Huang Xingguo, Xi’s ally.
And here comes another interesting coincidence: six months after Huang became Tianjin party chief, Zhou Yongkang’s trial took place. Where, you might ask? In Tianjin. The only trial of a PSC member in three decades took place in Tianjin, whose party chief had just been changed six months before, with a Xi ally taking charge. Interesting, isn’t it? A year later, Ling Jihua went on trial. In Tianjin, as well. If you believe in coincidences, you can easily dismiss all this as happenstance. If, on the other hand, you believe the party leadership likes to be in control of things, all the more so in the case of highly important trials, you understand the role Huang Xingguo was handed.