Last week, China's anti-corruption campaign took a significant turn, though a largely overlooked one. The Supreme People's Court released a statement accusing former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, the highest-ranked official thus far implicated in China's ongoing anti-corruption campaign, of having "trampled the law, damaged unity within the Communist Party, and conducted non-organizational political activities." In Chinese bureaucratic speak, this was only a few steps shy of confirming earlier rumors that Zhou and his former political ally and one-time rising political star from Chongqing, Bo Xilai, had plotted a coup to pre-empt or repeal the political ascension of Chinese President and Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. Thus, the court's statement marks a radical departure from the hitherto depoliticized official language of the anti-corruption campaign.
Of course, it has long been clear that the Xi administration's anti-corruption campaign is far more than just a fight against graft - it is also a political purge designed to tighten the new leadership's control over Party, government and military apparatuses. But up to now, official language on the anti-corruption campaign has been couched in terms of fighting graft and abuse of power "for personal gain." So far as we are aware, very few if any official statements have alluded to "political activities" by suspects - and certainly none concerning high-profile figures like Zhou, whose position at the top of the country's energy industry and domestic security apparatus made him one of the most powerful Chinese politicians of the 2000s. Whatever the court's precise intent, that it chose language even hinting at a coup by Bo and Zhou is extraordinary.
If we accept that the use of a phrase like "non-organizational political activities" is significant, then we have to ask what the decision to use that phrase at this time may signify. To our minds, two possible interpretations stand out. First, it could mark a nascent shift in the way Chinese authorities frame the anti-corruption campaign and imply that going forward the campaign will become more overtly political. Second, it could signal that Xi and his allies, confident of having fully eliminated any threat posed by Zhou and his associates, are acknowledging an end to one phase of the anti-corruption campaign - the elimination of competing factions - and are now embarking on the further consolidation of authority and control over the far reaches of the bureaucracy.
If the former interpretation is correct, the anti-corruption campaign is about to get more brutal and potentially more destabilizing, as it moves from a relatively focused purge and general cleansing of the Party to a full-on assault against those who have the strength to challenge Xi's nascent authoritarianism. According to the latter hypothesis, with the would-be challengers routed and acknowledged as anti-Party plotters, and with political power firmly centralized under Xi and his allies, China's leaders can now put politics aside and move on to the more difficult and important task of building a government ready to manage the profound social and political disruptions that will almost certainly accompany China's economic slowdown.
In either case, the anti-corruption campaign and political centralization are not occurring in a vacuum. The campaign may be the highest profile of Xi's initiatives thus far, but it alone is clearly not sufficient to deal with China's myriad problems. The question, then, is what to expect next.
Two recent developments in particular frame our understanding of the trajectory of China under Xi and his strategy for ushering China and the Communist Party safely through the difficult years ahead. First is the Party's renewed emphasis following the Fourth Plenary Session in October on establishing effective rule of law. Second is the announcement in February that going forward, the anti-corruption campaign would center on 26 of the country's largest state-owned enterprises, with a focus on resource, construction, heavy industrial and telecommunications businesses. This announcement came one month prior to renewed government pledges to merge and consolidate the state sector. It also stands out as the first time the government has pre-emptively and publicly named potential future targets - thus, in theory, giving them fair warning. As one official put it, the government plans to "hang the sword of Damocles" over the state-owned sector's head.
The thread that binds these two seemingly disparate elements together is the problem of political development in the context of rapid social and economic change - that is, how to build flexible and adaptive governing institutions capable of adjusting to meet the emerging needs of an urbanizing and industrializing (in some regions, post-industrializing) society like China's.