His son landed contracts to sell equipment to state oil fields and thousands of filling stations across China. His son’s mother-in-law held stakes in pipelines and natural gas pumps from Sichuan Province in the west to the southern isle of Hainan, while his sister-in-law, working from one of Beijing’s most prestigious office buildings, invested in mines, property and energy projects.
In thousands of pages of corporate documents describing these ventures, the name that never appears is his own: Zhou Yongkang (周永康), the formidable Chinese Communist Party leader who served as China’s top security official and the de facto boss of its oil industry.
However, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has targeted Zhou in an extraordinary corruption inquiry, a first for a party leader of Zhou’s rank, and put his family’s extensive business interests in the cross hairs.
Even by the cutthroat standards of Chinese politics, it is a bold maneuver. The finances of the families of senior leaders are among the deepest and most politically delicate secrets in China. The party has for years followed a tacit rule that relatives of the elite could prosper from the country’s economic opening, which rewarded loyalty and helped avert rifts in the leadership.
Whether to wipe out Zhou’s influence or to send an unmistakable signal to the entire party elite, Xi appears to be rewriting the rules. He has widened the inquiry into Zhou to include his wife, a son, a brother, a sister-in-law, a daughter-in-law and the son’s father-in-law, all of whom have been taken away by the authorities in recent months, according to relatives and witnesses.
Zhan Minli (詹敏利), one of the few members of the clan who remain free, said her granddaughter — who is also Zhou’s granddaughter — has been left in the care of a kindergarten in Beijing because the rest of the family is in custody.
“It is too cruel for a five-year-old child,” she said in an interview in her home in southern California. “The government needs to answer to the people as well as the leadership itself.”
Officially, the Chinese leadership has said nothing about the corruption investigation into Zhou or the detention of his immediate relatives and Xi’s ultimate intentions about how to handle the case remain a matter of speculation.
Some political analysts argue that a leader of Zhou’s status would not face an inquiry of this kind unless Xi regarded him as a direct threat to his power. In other words, Zhou is the loser in a political struggle. His family’s financial dealings lost their immunity only because Zhou fell from favor, not because elite business dealings are being criminalized.
CHANGING THE RULES
Another school of thought is that Xi considers the enormous agglomeration of wealth by spouses, children and siblings of top-ranking officials a threat to China’s stability by encouraging mercenary corruption and harming the party’s public standing. Those people say he has pushed the Zhou investigation beyond traditional bounds to signal that the rules have changed and that top leaders will be held responsible for their family’s business activities, even though Xi’s own family members have been among those who have grown rich.
If that is so, the case has the potential to alter the political compact of China’s boom years. For many elite clans, like Zhou’s, acquiring stakes in lucrative enterprises that did business in the realm that the family patriarch supervised was not effectively banned — and sometimes not even well disguised.