By Jamil Anderlini in Beijing
China’s powerful chief of domestic security has relinquished day-to-day control of the country’s police, courts and spy networks in the wake of the most serious political scandal to hit the country in decades, according to senior Communist party members.
On paper and in public, Zhou Yongkang, who is due to step down later this year as part of a broader leadership transition, retains his title as secretary of the ruling Communist party’s political and legislative affairs committee. He is also part of the nine-member politburo standing committee, which effectively runs China.
But according to three senior party members and diplomats briefed on the subject he has handed operational control of the pervasive Chinese security apparatus to Meng Jianzhu, the current minister of public security.
The trigger for Mr Zhou being sidelined was his enthusiastic lobbying on behalf of purged Chinese leader Bo Xilai during internal debates over Mr Bo’s fate in March and early April, these people say.
Mr Bo, who was Communist party chief of the south-western mega-city of Chongqing, had been seen as a possible successor to Mr Zhou on the politburo standing committee. But after his former trusted police chief tried to defect to the US he was suspended from all his positions at the top of the party hierarchy last month. His wife is also accused of taking part in the alleged murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
The purge of Mr Bo has revealed deep ideological and personal rifts at the highest levels of the ruling Communist party and Mr Zhou’s effective removal from power, which occurred some weeks ago, raises the stakes in the political crisis facing China’s rulers.
The inner workings of elite Chinese politics are almost hidden from public view and the party goes to great lengths to cover up any strife or disunity at the top echelons of power.
For this reason, Mr Zhou, who ranks ninth in the Communist party hierarchy, will not be publicly removed from his positions until this autumn, when he was already scheduled to retire along with most other top leaders, including president Hu Jintao.
One person familiar with the matter said that publicly firing Mr Zhou would also be dangerous since his role as security tsar meant he had access to all the dark secrets of other leaders gathered over the years by China’s pervasive domestic spy network.
In addition to handing over daily control of the security apparatus, Mr Zhou has also been forced to make a “confession” to his colleagues on the standing committee for his errors of judgment in trying to protect Mr Bo, according to people familiar with the matter.
He will also not have the right to choose his successor in the political reshuffle that will happen at the 18th Communist Party Congress in autumn, according to these people.
In recent weeks Mr Zhou has been ubiquitous in state-controlled media and has met with a string of visiting dignitaries, including many who diplomats and analysts say would have been considered too junior to meet with him in the past.
Last week, Mr Zhou met with Singapore’s deputy prime minister Teo Chee Hean and on Wednesday he gave a speech while visiting the China University of Political Science and Law.
“The university should strengthen students’ knowledge of ideology and China’s national conditions, as well as pay equal attention to the development of both professional skills and moral character,” Chinese state media quoted Mr Zhou as saying.
One senior party member and supporter of Mr Zhou who spoke to the FT on condition of anonymity confirmed that Mr Zhou had already handed most of his responsibilities to Mr Meng but said he considered this “normal” because Mr Zhou was preparing for retirement soon.
Other senior party members and political analysts, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was highly unusual for a top leader to hand over their portfolio before the end of their term, especially in the midst of a major power struggle.
One of these people characterised the current political strife and the purge of Mr Bo as “a symptom of the ideological struggle caused by disagreement over which direction the country should go in”.
Some officials within the party, including premier Wen Jiabao, are trying to push through political reforms that would move China towards western-style democracy while hardliners, including Mr Zhou, are opposed to such a move.