Background Memo

by Juan L. Mercado

Tempers flared between the Philippines and Vietnam on one side and China on the other over fishing and oil explorations in contested waters.

A Philippine maritime and police boat arrested Filipino and Chinese fishermen in separate boats for an illegal catch of turtles, some of which are protected under Philippine laws. They were taken to Puerto Princesa where charges were filed. The state-run Xinhua news agency said Beijing demanded the immediate release of its nationals and called on Manila to “take no more provocative action.”

Boats from Vietnam and China slammed into each other as China National Offshore Oil Corp. built an oil rig close to the Paracel Islands on May 2, The Associated Press reported. The oil rig was escorted by “a large flotilla of naval craft.” Beijing “announced that no foreign ships would be allowed within a 3-mile radius of the $1-billion rig.” Vietnam is pressed to the wall as Asean meets in Yangon next week.

These won’t be the last clashes either. So, look at the context. Most Filipinos have never heard of Zhou Yongkang, for example. Until seven months ago, he was one of China’s most powerful politicians. He doesn’t get a line in the official media today. He is a “presumed victim of the Orwellian security apparatus he once controlled,” writes BBC China editor Carrie Gracie.

Born to a poverty-stricken family, Zhou got an engineering degree, and clawed his way to control of the vast internal security apparatus. The financial journal Caixin traced the business interests that made the Zhous billionaires.

That all changed when Xi Jinping took up the Communist Party leadership and unleashed a campaign against graft. “Zhou is his chosen tiger. This story is at the core of China’s stability and reform momentum,” BBC’s Gracie adds. “The fight to bring him down is the politics to watch.”

Political analyst Deng Yuwen says there are three reasons for taking on this tiger: “to consolidate power and gain respect”; push reform among entrenched graft-tainted officials; and buffer up the Party’s image.

“If [Xi] tries to fight Zhou to the death, Zhou will take him and the Party to the bottom,” Deng adds. “Xi has to leave Zhou a stake in keeping the Party afloat. That’s what they’re fighting over now.”

This makes sense, says BBC’s Gracie. China’s one-party political cycle vests no electoral mandate. Taking out a rival with a corruption trial clears space for one’s own people and policies. Despite stunning growth, the present economic system is unsustainable. Removing state behemoths in key sectors provides elbow room for reform.

“It’s hard to exaggerate the depth of public cynicism about the political class.” Senior officials plundered billions, many stashing fortunes in foreign assets.

“We’re not talking about a Westminster expenses scandal over the odd duck house or extra apartment. As the Chinese economy has surged, senior Party officials have used their monopoly on power to plunder billions from the public purse, many hiding their fortunes in offshore accounts and foreign assets,” Gracie says.

“Xi is plucking fur from the tiger,” Deng says.

If Zhou is charged, he will be the most senior leader to be so since the communists took power in 1949. But it’s hard to judge whether the public will draw the conclusion that Xi wants from all of this. How much Party scandal can it bear?

Last year saw the trial of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, a spectacle which lifted the lid on the crime, corruption and downright depravity that passed for politics in one of China’s largest cities. But Bo Xilai was only on the Politburo—i.e., in the squad but not in the first team.

The Standing Committee members left each other’s families and business interests alone. They shiver at the show trials of their parents’ generation, how washing of dirty linen in public leads to chaos. Xi smashed that pact. “And top families ask: Who is next?”

In March, prosecutors accused Lt. Gen. Gu Junshan of bribery, embezzlement, etc. It presented a first glimpse of what could be the biggest scandal to ever engulf the armed forces, the New York Times says.

Gu is accused of presiding over a land development racket that involved kickbacks, for-sale promotions, and expensive residences with “high-end liquor, gold bullion and cash.”

The investigation of Gu, who had a commanding authority over how resources in the army were used, has shaken the military because of the scale of his activities—estimates of his assets range from several hundred million to a few billion dollars—and because it threatens some of its most senior figures, adds the New York Times.

In internal speeches, Xi lashed against the “Gu Junshan phenomenon” of corruption. “Dredge the soil that produced Gu Junshan,” he said, and threatened to bring down “large and small Gu Junshans.” The charges threaten “some of the most senior figures in the military.”

Xi’s campaign seeks to overhaul a military larded with patronage networks into a leaner fighting force. That would project power abroad and buttress party rule at home, while strengthening his own authority over the army. Thus, he regards the military as a bastion of support.

He blamed the collapse of the USSR in part on Mikhail Gorbachev’s losing control of the military.  “His implication was, ‘I’m taking charge of the military for real. I’m not going to be like the last two administrations, putting up with you as you bumble around,’” an associate of Xi told the New York Times.

Xi spends half a day each week at the Central Military Commission headquarters.

And that is what Southeast Asian countries will have to keep in mind when the next clash comes along.

(E-mail: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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