For about a week, assassination rumors have been swirling around the Chinese capital. According to reports carried in Hong Kong outlets such as Mingjing News, Zhou Yongkang has been detained for involvement in a plot to kill Xi Jinping, the newish ruler of China. Since then, various sites, especially the U.S.-based Boxun News, have carried articles relaying murderous activities attributed to Zhou, who was the country’s internal security czar until November 2012.
Zhou, 71, has also been accused of using two members of the People’s Armed Police — once under his command — to kill his ex-wife. His two drivers reportedly confessed to their role in the murder and were given terms of 15 to 20 years in prison. According to news articles, they were released after serving just three and four years and given jobs in the state-run petroleum industry, which at the time was controlled by Zhou and his political allies.
These various reports, widely circulated, remain unconfirmed, although it is clear the once mighty Zhou is in political trouble of some sort. In November, state media reported that he offered condolences to the family of an educator, an indication that he was still in good standing in the Party. Nonetheless, it is curious that Zhou has dropped out of view. He was last seen in public on October 1, at the National Day celebrations of the China University of Petroleum.
Moreover, his son, Zhou Bin, is reported to be under a form of house arrest in Beijing and cooperating with authorities. A number of Zhou Yongkang’s associates in the petroleum industry — most notably Jiang Jiemin — have been detained. Also under investigation, according to one source, are Zhou’s secretary, bodyguards, and drivers.
The rumors of last week, although highly sensational, provide a context for events in the past few months that at the time had seemed out-of-place. In August, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that Zhou was under investigation for corruption.
Then, the move against Zhou seemed to be an unprecedented violation of the Communist Party’s unwritten rule that no member of the Politburo Standing Committee can be held accountable (Zhou left the Standing Committee, the apex of Chinese political power, in November 2012). The prosecution, however, becomes more understandable if he in fact plotted to kill Xi Jinping.
It should also be noted that the rumors about Zhou’s coup attempt give credence to the stories that in March of 2012 there was gunfire inside Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party leadership compound in Beijing, and in the surrounding streets, where there were also armored car movements. And the unconfirmed stories add to the speculation that Bo Xilai, once China’s more openly ambitious politician, was trying to either raise a private army or encourage elements of the People’s Liberation Army to support him in subversive endeavors of some sort. Bo and Zhou are believed to have been, if not co-conspirators, then extremely close allies.
Bao Tong, the former high official who is still under house arrest in Beijing, has just called on the Party to release information on the investigation of Zhou. China’s ruling organization is unlikely to do so, and we may not learn for years — perhaps decades — whether Zhou was a participant in an attempt to overthrow Xi. Yet even if the rumors are untrue, the fact that stories of this sort are circulating in the Chinese capital is an indication that people want to, among other things, destabilize the Party or do in the former internal security czar.
At the time of the “shirtsleeves summit” between President Obama and Xi Jinping this June, the White House went out of its way to convince major American media outlets — most notably the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times — that the Chinese leader had quickly consolidated power. In light of the persistent coup rumors this year, that conclusion seems, at best, premature.
And Xi is still not secure. In recent weeks he may have decided that he would be safe only when Zhou was under lock and key. And, if so, China’s supremo was undoubtedly right. Zhou, after all, has been likened to Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief.
Yet there are even better historical comparisons. “He’s a lot like those of the ruthless era of ancient Chinese palace politics,” said Zhu Jianguo, a Shenzhen-based political commentator. Beijing today has the feel of a century ago, the late Qing dynasty. From China’s last imperial period, the country is now coming full circle. After a brief period of apparent stability, we are, in the next weeks and months, bound to hear of more end-of-dynasty intrigue.
In Beijing today, there are tales of conspiracy, struggle, coup, and murder. China looks like it is entering another dark period.