China is witnessing an unusual enquiry this week. Xi Jinping, the president of China, and his office have launched an almost-unheard of investigation into the financial holdings of the powerful Zhou Yongkang family. Considered an otherwise invulnerable set of elites, the accusations of corruption has shocked many. Zhou is a revered leader of the Communist Party, who has served as China’s top security official. He was a member of China’s ruling Politburo Standing Committee from 2007 to 2012, and the de facto boss of China National Petroleum Corporation, the state oil company.
The extraordinary corruption inquiry is a first for a Chinese party leader of Zhou’s rank and reputation. With his political clout and financial wherewithal, Zhou and his family would usually be considered inviolable. But it appears that things are changing within the political arena in China.
The investigation has unearthed thousands of corporate documents that enumerate the family’s vast wealth, though Zhou’s own name is not to be seen in these records. Instead, the papers show that his son was awarded contracts to sell equipment to state oil fields and thousands of filling stations across China, while other family members hold stakes in oil-based industries, from pipelines to pumps. Then, there are other relations of Zhou, who are heavily invested in mines, energy projects and property holdings.
But now these financial dealings are being thoroughly investigated. Observers in China are taken aback by this move, which is being considered audacious, even if one were to factor in the ferocious competition in Chinese politics. Traditionally, the finances of senior leaders of the ruling party have been considered sacrosanct, with the unspoken rule that relatives of the political elite would benefit disproportionately from the country’s liberalization, without being scrutinized. The flip side of this arrangement is the expectation of rock-solid loyalty and minimal rifts in the party structure.
Political observers have stated that probe has been initiated for one of two reasons. They speculate that either Xi is wary of the vast riches of Zhou’s network, or the President of China is investigating the powerful family to send out a message about accountability to others, who have accumulated enormous wealth in a similar manner. Whatever the reason, the direct impact has been felt by Zhou’s extended family, many of whom have been detained by the Chinese authorities.
Focusing on the need for accountability as a reason for the investigation, many political observers also speculate that Xi could be worried about the uncontrolled collection of wealth by high-ranking party members, which might encourage rampant mercenary behavior and harm the party’s public image. But it has been noted that Xi’s own family has reaped the benefits of his position and have become enormously wealthy as well.
A 2012 report by The New York Times states that relatives of Wen Jiabao, who was the ruling prime minister at the time, were worth at least $2.7 billion, while Bloomberg News exposed the holdings of Xi’s own family, which stood at hundreds of millions of dollars in assets. At this point, there is no indication that either of the families with their prodigious wealth will be investigated. However, if the President’s investigation into the powerful Zhou family finds them culpable of the alleged crimes of corruption, it is likely to change the political structure in China, as opposed to how it operates today.
By Monalisa Gangopadhyay