Zeng Qinghong could be the next target for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, according to unverified rumors circulating in Hong Kong and Chinese-American media since January. Zeng served as chief of the Communist Party’s powerful Organization Department and sat on the previous Politburo Standing Committee under former President Hu Jintao. Stratfor cannot verify these rumors, and has doubts about their provenance. However, while their probability is low, their significance, if true, is high. There are few people as powerful as Zeng, and any attempt to prosecute him would likely lead to substantial pushback. Thus Zeng’s prosecution would suggest that either Xi’s administration is confident of its position or it is nervous and desperate to strip its opponents of power.
The rumors have been circulating for weeks from Falun Gong-linked New Tang Dynasty Television and the Epoch Times. Hong Kong’s Open Magazine, a pro-democracy publication that works with Radio Free Asia, recently claimed that Zeng would indeed become the primary target of Xi’s power consolidation campaign, and was soon echoed by Chinese Media Net, which operates both in China and the United States. So far, these claims rely on very little explicitly stated evidence — for instance, Zeng’s conspicuous absence from two recent Communist Party gatherings, including an October celebration of President Xi’s father’s birthday, and rumors that Zeng was behind leaks to foreign news organizations about Chinese leaders’ personal wealth and holdings abroad.
Stratfor cannot independently corroborate these rumors. However, Xi’s ongoing probe into the activities of Zhou Yongkang—the previous chief of internal security and highest-level official to be interrogated under Xi so far—first appeared in the form of rumors on Chinese Media Net. In general, the Chinese rumor mill, despite being intermingled with fabrications, occasionally reveals a kernel of truth. Given the high significance of these rumors if they prove true, we are keeping a close eye on them as they develop.
Reputed links with Bo Xilai
There are several links between Zeng and the already-known outlines of Xi’s existing consolidation efforts. Zeng is known to have arranged the promotion of Zhou, the former internal security chief, who has not yet been prosecuted officially but who is widely believed to be under close supervision and discipline. Zeng rose through the ranks of the state-owned oil sector and the energy bureaucracy, which lies at the center of the Zhou investigation. Also, Zeng reputedly has links to the recently imprisoned Bo Xilai, with whom Zhou was also connected. By pursuing Zhou, Xi’s administration has shown that it is willing to bypass the unspoken legal immunity for former Politburo Standing Committee members, and therefore Zeng is certainly not off-limits.
The reason these claims gained Stratfor’s attention is that Zeng is a very powerful Communist Party figure whose previous job as chief of the Party’s Organization Department meant that he was responsible for personnel management, promotion and demotion within the Party. This post gave him extensive knowledge of the inner workings of the Party, unparalleled access to private lives and secrets, and a vast network. This makes him an even more consequential target than Zhou because of his greater ability to retaliate. Attempting to interrogate and prosecute him would likely entail substantial resistance and reprisals. Therefore a crackdown on Zeng would suggest that the Xi administration is either supremely confident of its security and political support or deeply anxious and desperate to shut down its opponents.
If Zeng is indeed the next target, then his selection raises several serious questions about the status of Xi’s power consolidation and China’s overall political transition. With the Zhou investigation, the campaign appeared to be moving into the highest official ranks. Since such figures have a vast network of allies and acolytes, this move indicates that the campaign is seeking to accomplish something more fundamental than adjusting and managing personnel according to affinities, capabilities and private relationships. It suggests that the administration’s policy initiatives are being blocked, forcing Xi to try to remove the obstacles directly.
This situation, in turn, implies that there is much stronger resistance and adjustment to how policy should be set and implemented. If the campaign were to extend beyond a few high-profile examples and several low functionaries to become deeply invasive and nationwide, then it would be more destabilizing for China than it previously appeared to be, perhaps veering more toward the intensity of the power struggles in the Mao and Deng eras than toward the smoother consolidations of the past 20 years.
Zeng’s targeting — should the Party in fact target him — would epitomize the risk that Xi’s power consolidation could provoke greater resistance and instability. The Party would not target him, knowing his resources and ability to resist, if it did not believe it were forced to do so for the sake of its broader reform and policy initiatives and overall control.
Republishing by The Manila Times of this Geopolitical Diary article is with express permission of STRATFOR.