◎ The downfall of Sun Lijun and Fu Zhenghua appears to be connected to Xi’s effort at marginalizing and securing a decisive victory against the Jiang faction.
The Chinese Communist Party anti-corruption commission announced the purge of two former public security vice ministers as the fourth quarter of 2021 commenced. Sun Lijun was expelled from the Party and all government posts on Sept. 30. On Oct. 2, Fu Zhenghua was officially investigated for “serious violations of Party discipline and the law.”
There was an intrigue to Fu and Sun’s downfall. Observers believe Sun Lijun was removed for being disloyal to the Xi Jinping leadership as he was accused of “having improper discussions of Party Central’s major policies,” “complying publicly but defying privately,” and “engaging in cliques and factions in the Party.” There was also speculation that Sun was sidelined for leaking sensitive information about the CCP’s COVID-19 handling. The announcement of Sun’s expulsion noted that he had “deserted his post on the frontline of fighting the COVID-19 epidemic” and “privately possessed confidential materials without authorization.”
Explaining the purge of Fu Zhenghua was more complicated. Observers note that Fu was hugely unpopular everywhere and had many enemies in the Party. However, Fu had also helped Xi Jinping take down former security czar and Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, suggesting that he was in Xi’s good books. And until the investigation into Fu was announced in October, his promotion to justice minister in 2018 and transfer to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in 2020 seemed to affirm the view that Fu was headed for a safe retirement.
SinoInsider, however, anticipated the eventual purge of Fu Zhenghua in March 2018, at the time of his being appointed justice minister. We also noted that he “still faces significant levels of political risk” when his move to the CPPCC in May 2020 seemed to indicate his good standing. We accurately forecasted Fu’s downfall due to our assessment of the underlying dynamic of factional politics in the Xi era.
Negative political legacies
Xi Jinping has been locked in factional struggle against a powerful faction named after former Party boss Jiang Zemin since 2012, an aftermath of the Wang Lijun incident. While the past nine years have seen Xi consolidate power to a high degree and purge many Jiang faction officials through the anti-corruption campaign, the latter still “remains a force behind the scenes” today, according to a February Wall Street Journal report.
In factional intrigues, the CCP elite have historically attacked their rivals for their “negative legacies”—policies that were undertaken for some political advantage, yet resulted in great disaster or loss of life. For instance, Mao Zedong grew increasingly marginalized in the Party with then-PRC president Liu Shaoqi blaming him for the vast famine brought about by the “Great Leap Forward.”
Targeting the negative political legacy of Party leaders, however, is a highly risky affair with serious consequences. Those who attempt and fail may pay dearly. For challenging Mao’s legacy, Liu Shaoqi was later brutally tortured and killed. Meanwhile, the winners receive a political boost and emerge more dominant, as in the case of Deng Xiaoping attacking Hua Guofeng’s “Two Whatevers” (a vestige of the traumatic Maoist era) and eventually ousting the latter from power.
Both the Xi camp and the Jiang faction have been targeting each other’s political legacies since Xi Jinping took office. For the Jiang faction, that means calling attention to the Xinjiang persecution campaign and escalating tensions in Hong Kong to the point where the Xi leadership has to consider a Tiananmen-like resolution or other draconian measures to end the “chaos.” For Xi Jinping, attacking the Jiang faction’s political legacy involves cracking down on corruption and threatening intra-Party accountability over the Falun Gong persecution while sidelining the organization overseeing the campaign.
The downfall of Sun Lijun and Fu Zhenghua appears to be connected to Xi’s effort at marginalizing and securing a decisive victory against the Jiang faction.
First, the careers of Sun and Fu mark them as Jiang faction members. Both climbed the ranks of the political and legal affairs apparatus during Jiang’s era of dominance from 1997 to 2012. Both were also trusted enough by the Jiang faction to be allowed to helm its anti-Falun Gong campaign. In 2015, Fu was head of the supra-authority “610 Office” and Sun was his deputy. Jiang allies held sway over the political and legal affairs apparatus in Xi’s first term, and Xi’s ongoing campaign to “rectify” the apparatus suggests that it is not yet cleared of Jiang faction influence.
Second, the timing of the formal probe into Fu and Sun’s expulsion indicates that both cases are linked. In Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, investigators often target deputies, aides, and subordinates of high-ranking officials to build a case against them before moving in on the “big tiger.” Fu Zhenghua’s investigation being announced days after his former 610 Office subordinate Sun Lijun was expelled fits the Xi anti-corruption campaign’s mode of operation.
That Sun was also formally accused of resisting investigation is also very telling. It is reasonable to deduce that the anti-corruption authorities only concluded the investigation phase of his case after he finally ratted out his superiors, cronies, and allies. The authorities then very likely used what they gathered from Sun to formally investigate Fu Zhenghua and plan probes into even more senior officials.
Third, the connection between Fu and Sun’s cases and the charge against the latter of “engaging in cliques and factions” indicate that factionalism is the main reason for their ouster.
Finally, the larger context of Fu and Sun’s downfall suggests strong efforts by Xi to attack the Jiang faction’s political legacy. In the second week of September, state media announced that the second segment of the national political and legal affairs education and rectification campaign targeting political and legal affairs officials in provincial-level administrations and higher would commence; Xi has long sought to rein in and take full control over the Jiang faction-swayed political and legal affairs apparatus. Meanwhile, Fu is one of at least 10 former 610 Office leading cadres in city, provincial, and central administrations that have been purged in 2021, according to our tally of investigation announcements in mainland media reports.
Previously, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection strongly rebuked the 610 Office for lacking “political sensitivity” in a 2016 corruption assessment report. The 610 Office and its leading group were subsequently disbanded and its functions split between the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission and the Ministry of Public Security as part of state and institutional reforms announced in 2018.
Taking out Fu Zhenghua and Sun Lijun, key 610 Office cadres, and “rectifying” the political and legal affairs apparatus aside, the Xi leadership has issued several notable signals this year that indicate a desire to bring the Xi-Jiang struggle to an end in Xi Jinping’s favor. These include:
- A crackdown on tech, finance, and entertainment, the last strongholds of the Jiang faction in the CCP regime;
- Xi’s commemoration of the Battle of Xiangjiang, which emphasizes the need for Party members to follow his leadership to survive existential crisis;
- References in Qiushi and other Party media (see here, here, and here) to “another Party Central” (另立黨中央), as well as the upholding of “Party splitters” Zhang Guotao and Wang Ming as negative examples that CCP members should not learn from;
- Frequent calls to eliminate the “lingering poisonous influence” of Jiang faction members Zhou Yongkang, Meng Hongwei, Sun Lijun, and others in the political and legal affairs apparatus;
- A Sept. 16 Qiushi op-ed by the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Science’s Institute of Military Political Work that called on the military to be absolutely loyal to Xi and the Party, and condemned Zhang Guotao, Wang Ming, Lin Biao and his “armed coup,” the “Gang of Four,” as well as Jiang faction members Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou, Fang Fenghui, and Zhang Yang.
- A Sept. 25 Central Commission for Discipline Inspection lead article called attention to the phenomenon of interest groups “surrounding and capturing” leading cadres, and warned that if allowed to continue, “it will inevitably shake the foundations of Party rule.” The article also mentioned “lawbreaking financial groups and Baoshang Bank,” with the latter institution being linked to Jiang faction bagman and Tomorrow Group founder Xiao Jianhua.
There are also informal signals that Xi is keen on decisively resolving the factional struggle in his favor:
- Duowei, a Beijing-based overseas Chinese language media outlet with a record of leaking information pertaining to the Xi-Jiang struggle, claimed in a Sept. 1 report that the Sixth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee will send a “major political signal” with the emergence of a “third major ‘historical resolution’” [歷史決議]. Because both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping took the opportunity to obliquely declare victory over their factional rivals in their respective “historical resolutions,” Duowei’s information implied that Xi can be expected to do likewise in his “historical resolution.”
- On Sept. 14, “Shang Xian Lao Hou” (“商賢老侯”), a self-media column on the mainland portal NetEase, published an internal “morning meeting circular” received by various anti-corruption, public security, and Jiangsu provincial authorities exposing the “judicial mafia” in Jiangsu Province headed by Luo Wenjin, a former captain of the criminal police corps of the Jiangsu Provincial Public Security Bureau. The article noted that Luo had “illegal dealings” with former Chongqing vice mayor and police chief Deng Huilin and former China Huarong Asset Management chairman Lai Xiaomin, and indicated that Luo’s superior, the former Jiangsu Political and Legal Affairs Commission secretary Wang Like, was also involved in corrupt activity. The article added that Luo and Deng had “improper discussions of Party Central’s major policies,” “insulted key national leaders,” and even planned trouble during a visit by a “national leader” to a commemorative event in Nanjing, but were prevented from carrying out their “sinister activity” by Ministry of State Security personnel. The “Shang Xian Lao Hou” article was subsequently scrubbed from the internet.
Xi Jinping’s bid for a norm-breaking third term at the 20th Party Congress in 2022 is almost certainly the driving factor behind his stepping up of efforts this year to take out factional rivals and eliminate their remaining influence in the regime. With domestic problems compounding for Communist China (Evergrande, debt crisis, rapidly deteriorating economy, demographic crisis, natural disasters, coronavirus pandemic, etc.) and seriously threatening regime security, Xi’s only option is to double down on control, deny his factional rivals any opportunities to strike back, and purge those who persist in resisting him.
Active or retired Jiang faction cadres in the central government, including the Politburo and its Standing Committee, could be brought down if the Xi leadership continues to work its way up the food chain. Supreme People’s Court president Zhou Qiang, Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission secretary Guo Shengkun, and former CPLAC secretary Meng Jianzhu are at risk of being purged. Jiang faction number two Zeng Qinghong and even the faction figurehead Jiang Zemin are at risk of being taken down should Xi Jinping take his anti-corruption campaign to its logical conclusion.
The Jiang faction and the “anti-Xi coalition,” however, will not “go gentle into that good night.” They can be expected to push back against the Xi leadership from their remaining strongholds in the financial sector and the political and legal affairs apparatus.
Businesses, investors, and governments must account for political and Black Swan risks in China as the Xi-Jiang struggle moves to a showdown.
- Che Jianjun, former director of the Anhui provincial 610 Office (investigated in February 2021);
- Peng Bo, former deputy director of the Central 610 Office (investigated in March 2021; CCDI states his 610 Office position);
- Zhang Lincai, former director of the 610 Office of Wuqing District, Tianjin City (investigated in April 2021; mainland media lists his 610 Office position);
- Du Rongliang, former director of the 610 Office of Wuxi City, Jiangsu Province (investigated in April 2021; CCDI states his 610 Office position);
- Liu Xinyun, former deputy director of the 610 Office of Zibo City, Shandong Province (investigated in April 2021; CCDI states his 610 Office position);
- Ma Yuchan, former director of the Hebei provincial 610 Office (investigated in July 2021; CCDI states his 610 Office position);
- Wang Wenhai, former director of the Henan provincial 610 Office (investigated in July 2021; CCDI states his 610 Office position);
- Hui Congbing, former deputy director of the Shandong provincial 610 Office (investigated in August 2021; CCDI states his 610 Office position);
- Fu Zhenghua, former director of the Central 610 Office (investigated in October 2021; mainland media lists his 610 Office position);
- Xing Lin, former director of the Sichuan provincial 610 Office Strategic Research Division and head of the Sichuan 610 Office’s Foreign Affairs Division (investigated in October 2021; CCDI states his 610 Office position).