The Chinese Communist Party has launched an investigation of Zhou Yongkang, a former top party official in charge of state security, police, paramilitary and courts for “grave violations of discipline.” Zhou, who was in the top echelon of the Chinese leadership until just two years ago, may be banished from the party and indicted.

The move is seen as part of President Xi Jinping’s campaign against corruption. But concern is rising that the investigation of Zhou, who as a member of the standing committee of the party’s politburo was the No. 9 official in former President Hu Jintao’s leadership, may incite power struggles among factions within the Chinese leadership. To avert possible political confusion, Xi should strive to enact reforms that firmly establish the rule of law, which would be a more effective way of eradicating corruption and abuse of power by officials.

It was long the case in China that top officials were immune from criminal investigations, even after retirement, so the investigation of Zhou has caused political ripples there. If he is indicted on corruption charges, it will be the first such case since the People’s Republic of China was established by the Communist Party in 1949 following its victory in China’s civil war.

After assuming the party’s top post of general secretary in November 2012, Xi launched an anti-corruption campaign, saying that he would “strike both tigers and flies,” meaning that he would not tolerate corruption regardless of status. In 2013, the Chinese leadership disciplined some 182,000 people for corruption, about 20,000 more than in 2012. According to the Chinese media, a total of 45 top-ranking officials — Cabinet members of the central government and province officials who are vice province chief or higher in ranking, including Zhou — have been investigated since Xi began his campaign. In June, Xu Caihou, former vice president of China’s Military Commission and the highest-ranking uniformed military officer, was banished from the party.

Criticism persists among party insiders, however, that Xi is waging his anti-corruption campaign in an arbitrary manner. One was quoted as saying that most of the top-ranking officials who came under investigation were promoted when President Jiang Zemin was in power.

Zhou, who served as president of the organization that preceded China National Petroleum Corp. — the nation’s largest energy company — exercised strong influence over China’s oil industry. In 2007, he was promoted to the politburo’s standing committee with the backing of Jiang. Hong Kong media reported that Zhou conspired with Bo Xilai, a disgraced Chongqing party boss who is serving a life sentence for corruption, to bring about political changes that would maintain his influence.

The investigation of Zhou means that Xi has effectively purged three of the 25 politburo members under the previous Chinese leadership. Such a large-scale crackdown on high-ranking officials on corruption charges is unprecedented in the history of the PRC. The party organ People’s Daily praised the latest move under Xi as embodying the political courage for purification and reform of the party. Since Zhou, as security czar, suppressed citizen protest movements, there is little public sympathy for him.

Still, fears persist among party insiders that the investigation of Zhou will trigger a power struggle within the party and could destabilize Chinese politics. Xi’s leadership has recently intensified investigation into the “oil industry faction” and state security officials under Zhou’s influence. Chinese authorities have so far reportedly detained more than 300 people close to Zhou, including family members and former aides. Hong Kong media also reported that the authorities have confiscated property worth 90 billion yuan (some ¥1.5 trillion) belonging to Zhou and members of his family.

In countries with one-party dictatorships like China, it is not unusual for high-ranking officials to use their positions to build personal wealth. The Chinese public appears to support Xi’s move to crack down on corruption involving high-ranking officials. For his part, Xi appears to be trying to bolster his political power base with his anti-corruption campaign. But just how far he should push his campaign will be a big question for Xi because targeting too many top officials for investigation might end up damaging the entire Chinese leadership and the Communist Party itself.

It’s also noteworthy that the Communist Party’s central discipline committee — instead of the police or public prosecutors — is investigating Zhou. In this case the party is wielding an upper hand over the state’s official organs in the investigation, illustrating how the party continues to wield supreme power that transcends the rule of law in China.

In addition to being president of the Chinese state and the leader of the party, Xi holds top positions in more than 10 organizations. Showing no inclination to reform the country’s one-party rule, Xi is pursuing political regimentation including suppression of pro-democratization activists and ethnic minorities’ political movement.

In November’s convention of the party’s central committee, Xi called for judicial reforms, including the establishment of independent and fair judicial and prosecution powers — proof that his leadership is aware that the rule of law is lacking in China. Using his powers to crack down on corrupt officials may win the president popular support, but corruption cannot be eradicated unless the rule of law has been established.

If Xi is serious about enacting reforms, he should implement political and judiciary changes designed to strip the party of its privilege, place a check on the powers that be and uphold human rights. He should realize that a populist and high-handed approach will not bring about the political and social stability that China needs to continue to thrive economically and to mature as a global power.

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