Making sense of a purge of China’s security services
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Mar 6th 2021
PURGES HAVE grown more common since Xi Jinping took over as China’s leader in 2012. To curb graft and snuff out any opposition to his rule, Mr Xi has been hunting in every corner of the country’s vast bureaucracy. Hundreds of thousands of officials have been punished. Thousands, many of them high-ranking, have been sent to prison. Remarkably, however, some people do not appear to have got the message. A new campaign has just been launched within the domestic security services (see article). Weeding out the disloyal is its primary goal.
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Can there still be serious opposition to Mr Xi? There is certainly little sign of it on the streets. Many ordinary citizens express content with his rule. Under him, China has become far more influential globally. The economy has kept on growing at a healthy rate (and surprisingly well despite the pandemic). His anti-corruption efforts are popular. Neither is there any obvious sign of discontent within the Communist Party elite. It seems likely that many bitterly resent the anti-graft inspectors, and that some senior officials even gnash their teeth. But those with misgivings about Mr Xi know they must keep their mouths shut and their heads down.
A lesson from this latest purge, however, is that the outside world only dimly understands Mr Xi’s political world. One stated aim of the campaign is to remove the “pernicious influence” of Zhou Yongkang, who was China’s security overlord just before Mr Xi took power. Mr Zhou was jailed in 2015 for corruption and leaking state secrets. Officials also accused him of “political plotting”—shorthand, many observers believe, for scheming against Mr Xi. That his name is still being invoked years later hints at tensions, but it is hard for outsiders to judge how serious they are. The agencies being targeted in the new campaign occupy the darkest corners of an opaque political system: the police, the secret police, the judiciary and the prison service. In the months leading up to the purge several powerful figures within this apparatus were toppled. One was the chief of police in Shanghai, who has been accused of forming “factions”. All detail of what that may mean is a closely guarded secret.
Despite this, the new purge contains clear messages. One is Mr Xi’s appetite for power. The campaign will wrap up in time for a big political event late in 2022: the five-yearly party congress. He looks sure to use this to extend his rule for another five years, in defiance of the convention that general secretaries step down after a decade. Tightening control over the security forces will help crush any opposition to his innovation.
That raises the other, still bigger, reason to pay attention. For all the seeming relentlessness of the rise of China under an increasingly adamantine authoritarianism, politics can pack surprises that suddenly change the country’s trajectory. Consider the arrest of Mao Zedong’s widow and others in the “Gang of Four” in 1976, the struggle that brought Deng Xiaoping to power two years later, the regime-threatening splits within the party that emerged during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the political bloodletting that eliminated Mr Xi’s rivals in the lead-up to his own anointment. You cannot rule out more such disruptive shocks.
In the build-up to next year’s congress, the murky waters of Chinese politics will deserve even closer scrutiny. That is in part because Mr Xi defies norms. As well as rejecting the modern principle that China’s leader gets only ten years at the top, he has seized more levers of power than any ruler since Mao. It is also because, under Mr Xi, the regime has become even more secretive. Alas, such secrecy makes for a government less accountable to citizens and more likely to catch the world unaware. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline "The darkest corners"