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Slew of arrests in China show Xi is consolidating his power

by Simon Denyer

The Washington Post

The trial of Bo Xilai may have divided the Chinese Communist Party and hogged the media spotlight, but, outside the courtroom, President Xi Jinping is continuing his steady efforts to consolidate control, clean up the party and sideline opponents, with a series of detentions and arrests in the past few days.

On Monday, a senior manager of China’s giant oil company China National Petroleum Corp. was placed under formal investigation for “severe breaches” of Communist Party discipline, the government announced, the second executive from a major state-owned enterprise to face such a probe this month.

Xi has vowed to fight the vested interests that are thought to be blocking efforts to reform the country’s economy, as well as eliminate both the “tigers” and the “flies” — the senior and junior officials — believed to be responsible for widespread corruption.

Wang Yongchun was vice president of CNPC, the parent company of PetroChina; he was also the head of the country’s biggest oil field, Daqing, and had been seen as a likely candidate to take over the whole company earlier this year. A regional manager of China Mobile was placed under a similar probe this month.

At the same time, the party’s efforts to assert more control over social media have also intensified. On Sunday, authorities announced the detention or arrest of three prominent critics.

A 60-year-old Chinese-American businessman, Charles Xue, who is also a widely followed commentator on social media, was detained in Beijing on Friday night on suspicion of soliciting a 22-year-old prostitute; a newspaper reporter who had accused a senior politician of corruption was detained in the city of Chongqing; and a whistle-blower was arrested for allegedly soliciting bribes from people he had accused.

Two other leading bloggers were also detained last week as part of a campaign against people accused of spreading “rumors” online.

Political analysts in China said the probe into Wang could be an attempt to limit the powers of a powerful ally of Bo’s, whose prosecution for corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power concluded Monday with closing arguments from both sides.

Ever since Bo’s fall from grace, there has been speculation that one of Bo’s strongest and most powerful supporters, former security chief Zhou Yongkang, could be the next to be ousted. While it is seen as unlikely that Xi would want to directly take on someone as senior as Zhou, who served until last year as a member of the party’s elite Standing Committee, the latest arrest could be an attempt to clip his wings. Zhou was widely seen as controlling the state monopoly of the oil sector.

“The aim of this operation is to separate Zhou Yongkang from the current political layout,” said Li Weidong, a political commentator and former editor of China Reform magazine. “This is not a swipe at the tiger, but meant to transform the tiger into a cat.”

Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said Xi’s anti-corruption campaign was more intense than many previous attempts to clean up the party from within, and had caused concern among local officials. But he said an “iron fist” would only bring short-term results and catch a small proportion of the corrupt. Only by freeing the media or passing a law forcing officials to disclose their assets could real progress be made, he said.

However, further evidence that this sort of reform was not in the cards came over the weekend, with the latest attack on the government’s critics, among them Xue, whose liberal posts had won him 12 million followers on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.

On Sunday, the editor of state-run Global Times newspaper suggested on Weibo that the authorities might be deliberately giving Xue a “hard time” for his political views.

But by Monday, the newspaper seemed to have backtracked, warning in an editorial that “influential” figures had to expect close scrutiny. “People who are addicted to raising up political confrontations should be clear that without a clean conscience, they are engaging in a groundless undertaking,” it wrote.

Earlier this month, the government called in a group of the country’s most widely followed social media commentators and urged them to be more constructive in their postings.