Why is China’s government taking down Zhou Yongkang?

He was once the third-most powerful man in China and described in the western press as the “Dick Cheney” of the People’s Republic, as Isaac Stone Fish explained to us in a radio interview yesterday. Now, Zhou Yongkang – along with some of his relatives and many of his former associates – are in a whole heap of trouble. As Stone Fish mentions in his Foreign Policy piece, the former head of China’s domestic security likely finds himself facing something known as shuanggui – “Chinese Communist Party-speak for an internal investigation against its own members — a process that usually involves lengthy detention and intense interrogation without any due process or legal representation.”

After the official announcement about the investigation of Zhou on Tuesday, the AP posted some quick vox, i.e. clips from ‘people on the street’ interviews, from Beijing. All of them welcomed the fact that Zhou was being held on corruption charges, echoing the rationale given by state-run media that the news would send a message through the halls of power. “Of course it is good news,” a man identified as Yang Shangyi said. “Those corrupt officials, no matter how senior their titles are, they must be pulled down.”

Writing at the FT, China expert Minxin Pei says President Xi Jinping seeks to accomplish a few different objectives by taking down Zhou.

To the Chinese people, Mr Xi hopes to offer reassurance that he is working hard to cleanse the rot inside the party. To his rivals, the downfall of Mr Zhou sends a clear warning: jail awaits those daring to challenge my authority (Mr Zhou is an ally of the now-disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai, Mr Xi’s adversary during the leadership transition). To everyone else, Mr Xi shows that he is now unquestionably the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping.
 
But will Xi’s bold moves spark a backlash? The BBC’s China editor Carrie Gracie writes, “other powerful veterans will worry that they might be next.”
 
Finally, David Wertime at Tea Leaf Nation has a great piece about how the Zhou story has been dealt with in the Chinese news media and on social media like Weibo, where Zhou was previously referred to as “you understand”, among other things. 
 
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Watching the Israel-Gaza war play out on Twitter

Things were relatively quiet over the weekend between Israel and Gaza, and on Monday morning (Boston time), the news was all about the possibility of getting a ceasefire in place. John Kerry was just in the region, but apparently everybody’s angry at him. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground unraveled in pretty quick and horrific fashion today. Explosions in two Gaza City locations, one near the main hospital and another close to a refugee camp, killed several Palestinian kids and injured a number of people. Israeli officials swiftly issued statements denying responsibility, blaming “terrorists in Gaza” for firing rockets at Israel that fell short. Palestinians blamed Israel. You can find graphic pictures of dead and injured Palestinian children online, but I’m not going to post any here. The pace of rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel picked up. And then came signs of more Israeli casualties. At least four people died in a mortar attack near the Israeli border with Gaza. Around mid-day, things started moving quickly toward broader escalation. Here’s a burst of events I pulled from Twitter, just to illustrate how fast and detailed the news from there plays out for all to see.

 

A minute or so later, warning sirens start go off in Israel.

 

Some real time analysis from a Reuters correspondent.

 

A quick public service announcement.

 

More sirens.

 

Sometimes, Palestinian militants launch multiple rockets simultaneously, presumably to increase the chances that one or more them might evade Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ anti-rocket missile system.

 

And this might be an indication of where that first rocket, seen by the journalist in Gaza, ended up.

 

Soon, the Israel Defense Forces issue a fresh warning to Palestinians in specific Gaza neighborhoods.

 

There are reports about a possible infiltration by Gaza militants into Israel.

 

The Israeli military steps up strikes inside Gaza, and they are reported by another correspondent reporting from inside in the territory.

 

These were some of the detailed events leading up to a televised announcement from Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. He called for the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip and “neutralizing the tunnels, which have the sole purpose of destroying our citizens, killing our children.”

“We need to be prepared for a protracted campaign. We will continue to act with force and discretion until our mission is accomplished,” Netanyahu said.

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The whole world fell in love with the students demonstrating at Tiananmen Square

When Chinese students initiated huge demonstrations in Beijing during the spring of 1989, they captivated pretty much everyone – the foreign press, the residents of Beijing, and even Chinese security forces. That’s a point made by Wall Street Journal reporter Adi Ignatius, who covered the movement 25 years ago in China, in this video posted yesterday on the 25th anniversary of the June 4th crackdown. Ignatius also appears in a fantastic documentary produced by Mike Chinoy, former CNN bureau chief in Beijing. I talked with Chinoy for my radio piece that aired on Wednesday. Listen here, and watch the full documentary too. And listen to this great interview from yesterday’s show, in which Aaron Schachter speaks with a young woman from Beijing (and a BBC colleague) about how many Chinese people from the post-Tiananmen generation feel that the June 4th events are sort of irrelevant to their lives.

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What does Obama really want in Syria?

Yesterday, I talked with Amb. Fred Hof after President Obama’s speech at West Point, and Hof seemed to think the president was indicating that he wants to start sending more military assistance to Syrian rebels. Today, Obama’s former special representative on Syria doesn’t seem so sure and he seems pretty frustrated with the lack of clarity from the administration.

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How much do the indictments of Chinese military officers matter?

The charges announced by the US Justice Department yesterday were a year in the making. “Enough is enough,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.

Not everyone was impressed though, given how unlikely it will be for any of the suspects to ever face trial in US court.

But James Lewis told me that this is an important first step for the US government. Here’s the Q&A he graciously endured with yours truly on Monday morning, after the news broke.

The online nicknames used by the accused hackers are kind of fun – “UglyGorilla” and “KandyGoo” are my personal favorites. Here’s a link to the whole 56 page indictment. As the NYTimes points out, the legal document “reads like a chronology of most of the major trade disputes between the United States and China during the past five years.” If China was indeed using cyberattacks as a way of punishing companies that challenged Chinese competitors under WTO regulations, this move by the DOJ is an interesting development.

In this insightful post, Jack Goldsmith writes that, “the indictments can be seen as a calculated escalation of pressure designed to demonstrate  United States’ resolve to clamp down on corporate cybertheft.”

China’s national news agency has a piece today about Beijing summoning the new US ambassador for a scolding, and it’s got lots of overwrought quotes from a Chinese foreign ministry official about American misbehavior. The Snowden revelations certainly put the Obama administration in an awkward position on the issue of cyber surveillance. But it’s hard to see how that should excuse Chinese cyber espionage activities, if they’re anywhere near as extensive as the experts seem to believe.

What happens next? Adam Segal at the Council on Foreign Relations writes that it’s safe to expect some heat, but not much else.

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China and Vietnam square off at sea

It doesn’t seem very likely that the recent flare up between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea is going to spark an all-out war. But when you’ve got ships ramming into each other and neither side keen to be seen backing down, things could certainly spiral into something very ugly (i.e. deadly) awfully quick. Here’s the segment we did on the show Thursday. And here’s a great Q&A at the NYTimes with MIT’s M. Taylor Fravel.

UPDATE: ChinaFile has opened up a discussion about this issue that’s worth keeping an eye on. The flare-up between China and Vietnam is a dangerous development, writes Ely Ratner, because it signals Beijing’s intent to pursue its territorial claims over and above its stated commitment to building a peaceful security arrangement in the region. Secondly, Ratner says it is getting harder to explain Chinese moves as reactive in nature.

This excuse is no longer viable. Even though President Xi himself continues to assert that China is simply reacting to the provocations of others, this is now an empirical fallacy after the announcement of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea last November and now this assertion of sovereignty against Vietnam. Rather than even waiting for pretexts to advance its sovereignty claims, China is now making first moves without provocation.

Another worrisome aspect of these maritime disputes, writes Orville Schell, is that for China they are fundamentally about territorial integrity. And that means Beijing will not compromise. This point reminded me of something said by Cui Tiankai, China’s Ambassador to the US, during a recent speech at Harvard University. Cui spoke to an audience at the Kennedy School of Government and suggested that the real problem here is not about territory at all, but about Japanese provocations and the US military alliance with Japan. “Such military alliances originated in the Cold War,” the ambassador explained. “Is it really appropriate for the 21st century? I don’t think such alliances will help us.”

Cui went on to say that America’s treaty obligations with Japan commits Washington to support any future provocations by Tokyo. “I think this is very dangerous,” he concluded in his answer to a question about the maritime dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. “You are committing yourself to an unknown situation in the future. Will this hurt American interest? I think you have to come to the right conclusion.”

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China detains activists ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown

Every one of the last 25 June 4th anniversaries has been a politically sensitive one for China. That means people the Chinese government suspects of stirring up trouble get detained. But the FT today says “this year’s crackdown has begun even earlier than usual.” A human rights lawyer who took part in the Tiananmen protests in 1989 is one of those who’s been arrested. Pu Zhiqiang also participated in a recent seminar about the Tiananmen crackdown that concluded “it was an injustice to open fire on unarmed citizens.” That is a dangerous statement for Chinese citizens to make publicly, even if they happen to be thousands of miles away from home. University students here at American schools are still wary of engaging in a public way with issues related to ‘June 4th’. Here’s my latest story that ran on The World last week. And here’s an interview Marco Werman did with John Pomfret, who covered the 1989 protests in Beijing for the AP and is now working on a book about the history of US-China relations.

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal’s “China Real Time” blog has posted a translation of a statement from that seminar mentioned above. Here’s an excerpt:

Participants in the meeting included mothers who lost their children, people who were sentenced to jail after the suppression and teachers who lost their jobs. As they spoke, they couldn’t help recalling what happened [in 1989], pointing out that even though time has flown by, the scars have not faded. They can neither forget nor avoid June 4th.

The participants agreed that although people might have different opinions about the causes, nature and meaning of the June 4th incident, it was undoubtedly not a “riot.” Rather, it was an intolerable violation of justice and law to shoot at unarmed civilians. All punishments arising from the notion that it was a “riot” should be cancelled, corrected and compensated.

UPDATE 2: I just came across this astounding dispatch by Pu Zhiqiang about what it’s like for Chinese activists to try to commemorate the June 4th anniversary.

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