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If the trial of Bo Xilai, a princeling and former Politburo member in China, had been a TV drama, the closing credits for directing and scripting would have gone to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist Party’s secret anti-corruption body. The court itself was merely the setting.
At the trial, Bo faced charges of corruption, embezzlement, and misuse of authority. In the course of his five-day ordeal, he shocked and delighted the public, which is accustomed to hearing that defendants accept all charges and offer apologetic statements to seek leniency during closed-door court sessions. Instead of performing the usual role, Bo denied all the charges and recanted an earlier admission of guilt, which he said he had made under duress: “I was interrogated several hundred times and passed out 27 times during the investigation,” he said. According to Bo, officials had threatened the death penalty for his wife, who was accused of killing the British businessman Neil Heywood, and to extradite his son, who was studying in the United States, if he didn’t stay mum.
Of course, those revelations were all edited out of the official court transcript, part of which was broadcast via micro-blog. However, insiders quickly leaked them to the public. The transcripts earned Bo much more sympathy than the party had anticipated, and they boosted his supporters’ claims that he was the victim of a power struggle and that his confessions were coerced. In the end, then, the trial said less about Bo’s guilt or innocence than about the party’s manipulation of the country’s judicial system in order to protect the interests of the senior party leadership -- all in the name of stemming corruption.
The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection was established in 1927 under the name of the Central Supervisory Commission of the Chinese Communist Party. It was originally charged with rooting out corruption within the top leadership ranks, but after the Communists took over China in 1949, the top leadership found it to be more useful for maintaining discipline further down the party hierarchy. They thus came to rely on it to quietly regulate the rank-and-file members without garnering much attention in the media or among the public.
Since the 1980s, as corruption has become more rampant, the party has expanded the commission’s role, giving it ever more power to discipline and control the conduct of some 80 million party members through a network of branches extending to the township level. According to a recent state media report, nearly half of the cases under investigation by the commission were based on tips or anonymous reports by petitioners or whistleblowers, which, most assuredly, means that the commission got its marching orders from the top leaders or via complaints sent to high-level party and government organizations.
During a typical commission investigation, which takes the place of any normal judicial proceedings, the commission employs a practice known as shuanggui, or “double regulations.” The accused is taken to a secret place (from which he or she cannot access his or her own network and connections) for harsh interrogation. The secrecy is also intended to shield the public from details that might harm the party’s image and to limit collateral damage to those higher up the chain of command. During the investigation, the commission can enlist the help of public security agents and get access to stacks of court subpoenas, detention permits, arrest warrants, and tax auditing permits. Prior to Bo’s trial, the commission reportedly scrounged together some 900 case files, each as thick as a book.
For a major case, the commission can take its investigations a step further and organize special teams of several hundred people to look into it; their findings take precedence over any other evidence. To prepare the allegations against Bo, the commission brought together more than 300 anti-corruption officials. Different teams were sent to conduct interviews and gather evidence in multiple locations at home and abroad. That seems like a lot of work under normal circumstances; it is all the more mind-boggling considering that all investigations of senior officials are approved by the Politburo, and that by the time the official is pulled into the system he is already considered guilty. Officials under investigation have no right to hire a lawyer. Their confessions can be obtained by any means during the investigation.
Upon completion of the investigation, the commission determines the parameters of a regular trial to follow, and hands down its own sentencing recommendation. The commission detained Bo between April and August 2012 before handing over him to the court. In an internal report, which was partially released by the state media, the commission listed six charges, including corruption, violation of party rules, abuse of authorities, and “maintaining improper sexual relations with a number of women.” Unsurprisingly, the court ended up adopting most of the recommendations. As is usually the case, his attempts to defend himself against the charges were considered a challenge to the court -- one that could lead to severe punishment.
According to the state media, the court convicted more than 100 senior officials under the direction of the commission between 1999 and 2009. Among them, eight were executed and 20 received a suspended death penalty or life imprisonment. Some, including the former deputy mayor of Beijing, committed suicide or died under mysterious circumstances before being detained. For example, on May 29, 2007, Zheng Xiaoyu, director of the National Food and Drug Administration, was tried for dereliction of duty after he allowed counterfeit drugs to enter the market. Dereliction of duty carries a maximum sentence of seven years, but the commission reportedly recommended the death penalty to appease public anger. The court acquiesced by adding corruption charges, and duly sentenced him to death.
The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection is headquartered inside a nameless and closely guarded office complex on 41 Pinglanli Avenue in Beijing. It has no listed phone number. Although officially a secret, in recent years, the commission has been constantly mentioned in the state media. Few ordinary Chinese understand its history or how it works. In their eyes, especially in the eyes of those who have been victimized by rampant government corruption, the commission stands as their only hope for justice. Many are willing to tolerate the organization as long as it appears to target corrupt officials.
After President Xi Jinping took the helm of the party last November, he appointed Wang Qishan, a fellow princeling known as China’s “fire chief” for his previous leadership role in resolving social and economic crises, head of the commission. At the same time, he made fighting graft a priority. Over the past ten months, the commission has sent ten "inspection teams" to monitor local governments and state-owned enterprises, bringing down a number of big “tigers,” including Jiang Jiemin, who oversaw state-owned enterprises and headed the country’s largest oil and gas producer for years. That has earned the body wide popularity.
Despite these high-profile initiatives, though, few observers really believe that the commission will make a dent in corruption. In the past five years, the commission has grown dramatically -- as has the number of its successes. Yet corruption has worsened. In addition, Mo Shaoping, a well-known human rights lawyer in Beijing, decries that the commission places itself above the judiciary, and, in its rigorous pursuit of “truth,” detains the accused for as long as several years and denies the person due process. Even though Chinese law explicitly prohibits the use of torture during interrogations, it does not recognize the right to remain silent. And Juntao Wang, a Chinese political analyst, says secret investigation and flagrant interference by the commission in corruption cases have weakened and obstructed other efforts to build the rule of law by putting local courts under the direct control of the central party organization to block undue interference from local governments.
At a more fundamental level, government graft occurs due to the lack of transparency in the system. And China’s anticorruption commission is nothing if not opaque. Often, the commission seems to enforce the law selectively. Since many who are under investigation have connections to, or enjoy the backing of, senior officials, one of the commission’s most important tasks is to filter out and, if necessary, remove any suggestion of impropriety. The investigations also serve as a way to warn them of bad behavior and offer a way out of a potential political scandal. “Prior to Bo’s trial, the commission weeded out any information that could implicate other senior leaders and imply that Bo was a victim of political power struggle,” Chen Xiaoping, a U.S.-based Chinese legal scholar, said. “To appease different factions within the party and mask the political nature of his crimes, the commission limited the scope of the charges to mere corruption and abuse of power.”
And that is why the most worrying aspect of the Bo trial is that it showed just how politicized the commission itself has become. In years past, members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s highest decision-making body, enjoyed absolute immunity while they were in office -- the threat of purges would be too destabilizing for the country. That explained why Zhou Yongkang, a former Standing Committee member whose family had reportedly pocketed billions of dollars from his political connections and who had openly supported Bo until the very end, was allowed to serve out his term.
Over the past few decades, however, senior Chinese leaders have started employing the commission as a tool to criminalize political opponents -- not just to keep them in line but to make sure that their own positions are secure. Former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao successfully brought down Chen Xitong, the former party secretary of Beijing, in 1998, and Chen Liangyu, the former party chief of Shanghai, in 2008, because the two Chens -- not related -- were undermining their authority.
Bo’s name has now been added to that list. Misfortune befell him when he conspired with his friends and allies at the top to seize power and become China’s premier. So far, getting rid of the well-connected Bo has proved to be more challenging than many expected -- Bo’s allies and foes are deeply intertwined, sharing common political and economic interests. Emboldened by support from within the party, especially among fellow princelings, Bo turned the court into a forum to fight for his political reputation, knowing too well that a guilty verdict had already been determined by the commission. To many in the public, he succeeded. “In a country where no official is immune from corruption, Bo has proved that he is cleaner in comparison,” Wang Xiaoning, a political commentator, wrote in a blog post. Despite its best efforts, “The party ended up putting itself on trial.”
And at a time when rampant government corruption has ignited strong social resentment, that is a dangerous thing. It could spell disaster for the party and lead to political instability -- when party officials are unable to defend themselves against criminal charges, they will resort to further political machinations. If the commission can keep itself, and its trials, out of the limelight, only letting leak its charges and verdicts, it will no doubt help win more hearts and boost Xi’s credibility in the short term. However, if the Bo episode becomes the norm, and with its unlimited power, the public will soon catch on to the fact that the commission has itself become a breeding ground for power struggles, corruption, and abuse of power.
And here, Bo’s own example is instructive: when he was party chief of Chongqing, he initiated a similar type of anti-graft and anti-crime campaign, during which several thousand party officials, businesspeople, and residents were hastily detained for investigations or executed. In the end, Bo’s opponents employed similar methods to destroy him. If the leadership does not abolish the commission and continues to deny the important roles that an independent media and judiciary play in the fight against corruption, no one will win.