The Fall of No Average Zhou 周永康:老大的垮台 by Scott McKnight

CORN November 2014 Edition.

Once at the epicenter of China’s power structure, former oil boss and domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang is now public enemy number one—and the biggest “tiger” CCP Chairman Xi Jinping has ensnared. How did it happen? 


Zhou Yongkang

For a high-profile member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), none of it really seemed out-of-place: an asset profile comparable to the GDP of an African nation, a millionaire “princeling” (太子) son,[1] the mysterious death of one wife[2] and marriage to a famous—and much younger—new one.[3] But even in the opaque and high stakes world of Chinese politics, Zhou Yongkang was nevertheless an especially enigmatic—and ruthless —figure.[4] Just a few years ago, Zhou was arguably the most powerful man in China, the Oz-like figure behind a sprawling network of high-ranking politicians and businessmen—and perhaps keeper of the secrets which haunted both. But all of that was before he became embroiled in a merciless winner-takes-all power struggle at the very top of the CCP pyramid. This article charts his rise and sheds some light on his demise.

  Profile of Zhou Yongkang
Hometown & Birth year Wuxi county, Jiangsu (1942)
Alma mater & Major Graduated (1965) with degree in Petroleum Engineering, Beijing Institute of Petroleum (now China University of Petroleum (中石大))
Key Posts Joined CCP (1964)
CNPC (中石油) chief executive (1996-98)
Minister of Land & Natural Resources (1999)
Party secretary of Sichuan province (January 2001-December 2002)
Minister of Public Security (公安部) (2002-07)
State Councilor of the State Council (2003-08)
Secretary of the Central Political and Legislative Committee (政法委) (2007-12)
Retired from Politburo Standing Committee (November 2012)

From Cub to Tiger

While majoring in petroleum engineering in his early twenties, Zhou Yongkang joined the CCP just as the cyclone of the Cultural Revolution swept down on China’s universities. From classmates and faculty at what is now the well-known China University of Petroleum (中石大), the politically astute Zhou cultivated what would become lifelong allies. In fact, oil and gas would be good to Zhou; for the next 32 years, Zhou steadily rose through the industry’s ranks, no doubt in part due to his intelligence and natural feel for the political, but also because the industry itself was central to Mao Zedong’s vision of a mighty socialist utopia.[5]

In the mid-1990s, after structural reforms loosened the state’s oil monopoly, Zhou was appointed manger of the behemoth China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) (中石油), then China’s largest national oil company and linchpin in China’s rapidly expanding economy. Zhou oversaw CNPC’s overseas search for upstream assets, including what are now significant—and high-profile—investments in Sudan and Kazakhstan. Under his tutelage, the company recorded staggering profits.  Zhou’s managerial skills—and political loyalty, especially to then CCP chairman Jiang Zemin—made Zhou an attractive candidate to help guide China’s massive and increasingly market-oriented economy. The epicenter of China’s power structure was within sight.

Tinker, Tailor, Oil Man, Spy

It was Zhou Yongkang’s promotion to head China’s ubiquitous internal spy network that truly brought him to the apex of China’s power structure. Leading the Ministry of Public Security (公安部), Zhou controlled a budget larger than the military’s. Zhou then embarked on an ambitious expansion of the domestic spy agency, itself consumed with taking on unrest in Xinjiang, Tibet, universities, the countryside, not to mention the growing numbers of Chinese on the Internet and foreigners in China. Several years into the 21st century then, the tentacles of Zhou’s power network stretched far and wide—from the influential oil and gas sector, the eyes-and-ears of China’s internal security apparatus, and the upper echelon of China’s ultra-exclusive Politburo Standing Committee (PSC)—Zhou became a full member in 2007—as well as his nearly inestimable material wealth. At this point, Zhou may have been the most powerful man in China.

How the Mighty Fall

Then he crossed the line. All signs point to his fateful decision to back the wrong horse in the high-profile CCP power struggle; Zhou supported the charismatic heavyweight Bo Xilai, whose fate had been sealed when a key ally fled to the US consulate in the interior city of Chengdu. That the defector was also an ally of Zhou’s from decades before didn’t bore well for Zhou’s political survival. After Zhou reportedly did not give unflinching support for Bo’s purge—an axe that fell publicly without Zhou’s blessing—Zhou too was doomed for the chopping block. In the summer of 2013, a four-day meeting was reportedly called on how to handle Zhou.

Who exactly said what remains unclear for all but the tight-lipped handful present at the meeting and the many hush-hush discussions on the topic. But the mandate from that meeting has become clear over the past year: in September 2013, Chairman Xi Jinping delivered devastating blows against two cement pillars of Zhou’s power network—the “Shengli clique” (胜利帮) from Zhou’s oil days as well as Zhou’s allies in Sichuan province where he served as party secretary (January 2001 to December 2002). With ruthless determination, Xi Jinping has gone after Zhou Yongkang and his supporters.

What Went Wrong?

Under what pretext did the new Chairman attack this dangerous and unruly rival? The CCP, in seeking to maintain the fig leaf of internal unity for public consumption, has always been reluctant to air the dirty laundry of its power struggles. Thus, Zhou Yongkang was officially investigated for “serious violations of discipline”—CCP speak for corruption. That much is in line with Xi’s well-publicized promise to take down “tigers”—high-level abusers of power in the CCP, previously seen as untouchable by unwritten CCP convention. And the oil and gas sector has long been seen as a hideaway for powerful men to behave badly—and thus low hanging fruit for public criticism and populist politicians. Although Chinese state-owned media has remained noticeably tight-lipped about just how much Zhou stole, in March 2014, Chinese authorities seized assets worth a mind-boggling $14.5bn —about the GDP of Malawi—from Zhou’s family and friends.

But long-time Chinese watchers and cynical Chinese aren’t sold on the government’s anti-corruption line, and instead see history repeating itself. Since the early years of the CCP’s existence as an underground revolutionary conspiracy, the Party has often veiled life-and-death power struggles as noble crusades to purify the ranks against corruption. Likewise, another characteristic of these winner-takes-all struggles is that, once the victor is decided, so begins process of taking down the entire power edifice of his rival—including not just powerful allies, but politically connected family and friends, too. Zhou’s allies, especially those connected to Sichuan province and the oil industry, including his millionaire son, have already been rounded up. Learning from the winners of power struggles past, such is Chairman Xi’s determination to consolidate power and take down mighty rivals—while using rich metaphors of taming uncontrollable “tigers” to do so.

So far, all of this reads like a classic CCP power struggle. But what about the see-no-evil approach from government sources and Chinese state-run media? What appears like dithering on Zhou Yongkang’s verdict looks more and more like a calculated effort to avoid a final verdict against such a powerful man—until that man is drained of all his power anyway. Whereas Zhou’s disgraced ally Bo Xilai was publicly tried—and convicted to no one’s surprise—for months Zhou’s fate has appeared sealed yet the CCP’s final ruling conspicuously muted.

Ultimately, the Zhou Yongkang drama shows that even high-ranking (and retired, in Zhou’s case) officials can be brought down, their reputations ruined and their networks wrecking-balled—and all of that, when taken together, can serve as a conclusion of sorts.

Scott McNight

Having lived, worked and studied in China for six years, Scott is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto. He is especially interested in China’s elite politics, state-owned enterprises (especially oil companies), foreign policy-making and foreign relations, especially with resource-rich states. He has conducted multiple research visits in Africa where he examined China’s investments there. Scott also previously worked for the Office of the Governor General of Canada.
He can be reached at scottchrismcknight [at]


[1] Technically speaking, Zhou’s eldest son, Zhou Bin (周滨), could be considered a “princeling’s princeling”, since his father Zhou Yongkang was himself as “princeling”, as the son of a CCP veteran. Zhou Bin was an oil and gas heavyweight before his detention in December 2013. Zhou was accused of illegal dealings in Sichuan.Hong Kong-based Apple Daily claims that Zhou Bin made more than US$1.6bn from public works in Chongqing city alone, apparently using his father’s name to extort millions in protection fees from various businesses.

[2]Zhou’s first wife, Wang Shuhua (王淑华), reportedly died in a car crash, though multiple sources have speculated that he had his first wife murdered.

[3] Zhou’s second wife, Jia Xiaoye (贾晓烨), a former reporter and TV producer at the state-run CCTV-2, is 28 years younger than Zhou.

[4] When asked about Zhou, former Australian PM and amateur Sinologist Kevin Rudd heeded a mother’s good advice: when not having anything to say, say nothing at all—or at least as little as possible

[5] The oil and gas industry also turned out to be a guiding light amid a haze of Mao’s disastrous economic policies.

This commentary reflects only the author’s personal opinion.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinby feather

You may also like...