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Hunting Tigers in China

CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – In the boldest move yet since President Xi Jinping launched his anti-corruption campaign, China has announced the start of a formal investigation into “serious disciplinary violations” by one of the Chinese Communist Party’s most senior figures, Zhou Yongkang. Though rumors of Zhou’s political demise had been circulating for nearly a year, anyone familiar with Chinese political intrigue knew that, until the CCP made it official, Zhou’s many powerful patrons and cronies could still save him. Now it is official: a “mega-tiger” has been brought down. But is that what China really needs?

Since 2012, when Xi began “hunting tigers,” as he put it, three dozen government ministers, provincial governors, and other high-level officials have fallen into his net. But Zhou is no ordinary tiger. A former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the CCP’s top decision-making body, Zhou was considered untouchable.

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, the CCP has adhered to the implicit rule that members of the Politburo Standing Committee, sitting or retired, enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution. Some have, of course, been purged in power struggles, such as the one that led to the fall of Hua Guofeng, Mao’s immediate successor, in the early 1980s. But the defeated have typically retired quietly, and never faced formal corruption charges.

Given this history, the prosecution of Zhou is a watershed event – far more significant than the riveting trial of the disgraced former Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai a year ago. It unambiguously demonstrates Xi’s personal authority and political resolve. But the question remains: What exactly does Xi hope to achieve with China’s most fearsome anti-corruption campaign in more than three decades?