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Growing Uncertainty at the Top in Beijing

Posted By Dean Cheng On May 16, 2012 @ 10:00 am In International | Comments Disabled

The Chinese leadership situation just became even more convoluted, as the official responsible for internal security, Zhou Yongkang, has been forced to relinquish his responsibilities. While it is impossible to be sure, one possibility is that a formal removal from office may be in the offing.

Zhou, responsible for China’s courts, police, and espionage and internal security apparatus, has been linked to fallen leader Bo Xilai. Bo’s own fall was apparently precipitated when his police chief, Wang Lijun, appeared at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, reportedly with information about Bo’s link to corruption.

Zhou’s fate may also be linked to the recent incident involving the blind activist Chen Guangcheng. Chen escaped from house arrest and traveled hundreds of miles from his home to the U.S. embassy. In so doing, he apparently outwitted and avoided local and national security agents—who would have been part of Zhou’s area of responsibility.

Zhou’s fall complicates the ongoing leadership transition. Bo’s fall opened up a seat on the Politburo, the 24-member group that oversees the Chinese Communist Party—and is really in charge of China. In the ongoing struggle between the “princeling” faction (the children of senior Party members) and the self-made bureaucrats, a suddenly vacated seat would be the focus of desperate efforts to gain advantage. If Zhou were to also be removed, it would open yet another seat, this time among the nine members of the Politburo who truly matter: the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC).

What makes this likely even more complicated is that Zhou would know where all the bodies are buried in China (perhaps literally). Replacing him now—months before the Party Congress this fall when the new leadership would be formally announced—would give his successor enormous advantages, not least of which would be access to both the files on the senior leadership and the surveillance apparatus that comes from controlling the internal security forces. Moreover, it would presumably entail a position on the PSC. So replacing Zhou is likely to entail a major struggle.

All of which suggests that the ongoing leadership transition in Beijing is fraught with more uncertainty than has been seen since 1989. Ongoing tensions with other neighbors (e.g., with the Philippines) and American elections diverting U.S. attention suggests that Asia is in for “interesting times.”


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