TOKYO -- Just as China's economy enters a pronounced slowdown, a fresh battle has broken out in the political arena over a scandal purportedly involving the country's top judge.
At the center of the judicial scandal that has gripped many of China's 700 million netizens since late last year is Zhou Qiang, president of the Supreme People's Court.
The alleged misconduct originated in the northwestern province of Shaanxi, when a private company sued the provincial government over the rights to develop a valuable coal mine.
A Supreme People's Court judge involved in the court case revealed that he had heard that his boss, Supreme People's Court President Zhou, order that the case be sent back to a lower court, so as to help the Shaanxi provincial government get off the hook.
The judge appeared in a video posted on the internet and presented documents that he claimed were proof of his allegations. According to the judge, case documents in his possession were stolen from the court, and, conveniently, two security cameras were not working at the time of the theft.
The scandal gained national attention when a prominent former TV presenter at state-run China Central Television, or CCTV, started to pursue the case, following the judge's accusations against Zhou.
The ex-TV presenter has been an internet sensation ever since exposing world-famous Chinese actress Fan Bingbing's massive tax evasion last year. Fan, the red-carpet favorite who has appeared in multiple Hollywood films, disappeared for months.
On Jan. 15, in the midst of the Shaanxi scandal, the Chinese Communist Party announced that Zhao Zhengyong, a former party secretary of the province, was being investigated for "serious disciplinary violations."
A probe commanded by the Communist Party's Central Committee has already been launched into the disappearance of trial records, quickly grabbing public attention.
In China, whenever a scandal big enough to rock society surfaces, it often has a political dimension. The latest scandal involving top judge Zhou is no exception.
One Chinese media source said that no matter how famous the TV presenter has become, he would not be able to openly criticize the Supreme People's Court's approach and its top judge without strong political backing.
This is because of the lack of judicial independence in China. The country's "political and legal affairs" apparatus allows the Communist Party, which has full authority over it, to command all organizations, including the judiciary. At the top of the apparatus sits Chinese President Xi Jinping, who doubles as the party's general secretary.
The organizations, which include courts and prosecutors, all have internal party committees functioning as party cells, which have the authority to check up on their activities.
This means that if the TV presenter and the supreme court judge, are not punished for condemning the supreme court's chief and the court's conduct, their backers are likely to be at the party's nerve center, above top judge Zhou.
Some observers think that there is another political reason why Supreme Court president Zhou is now in a bind. It is related to the political group he belongs to.
Zhou has been an influential member of the Communist Youth League faction, which comprises former officials of the Communist Youth League, the Communist Party's massive youth organization and a gateway for young people to become party cadres.
The league boasts 90 million members. Holding the highest post among league faction members now is Premier Li Keqiang, who is ranked second in the party hierarchy after Xi.
Like Li, Zhou once served as the league's first secretary. Zhou was Li's immediate successor as the league's head.
The league faction has long been led by former President Hu Jintao. When still in office, he met with former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and others in Beijing.
Hu allowed Zhou to attend the meeting, at a time when Zhou was still young and serving as the league's first secretary. Zhou's presence at the meeting signaled that Hu saw Zhou as a future candidate for national leader.
However, when Xi's leadership began in 2012, Zhou was not promoted to the Communist Party's 25-member Politburo despite initial expectations. Instead, Zhou assumed the top post at the Supreme People's Court.
Zhou continued to distance himself from Xi's political group. Zhou was expected to retire as the top judge after his five-year term expired in March 2018, but he managed to stay on.
Zhou is still young in China's political world, at 58, leaving open the possibility that he could be promoted to the powerful Politburo at the Communist Party's next quinquennial national congress in 2022. Whether Zhou will join the Politburo then will depend on his league faction's political power.
Xi and his allies have consistently been tough on both the league and the league faction. They have put pressure on the league to carry out reforms, using unusual language to criticize it for being bureaucratic and focusing too much on "entertainment."
It is quite difficult now for the league faction to regain lost ground, and the scandal involving Zhou is a further blow. He has now seen his authority as the country's top judge tarnished.
Be that as it may, the issue is something of a double-edged sword for Xi.
Xi's late father Xi Zhongxun was born in Shaanxi. A group called "the northwest faction" exists within Xi's leadership. It is made up of people with close ties to Shaanxi and the surrounding areas, who have been promoted by Xi himself.
If the scandal that has taken place in Shaanxi spreads further, the "northwest faction" close to Xi might not remain unscathed.
Another thing is on the minds of Xi and his allies: an economy noticeably in the doldrums.
The Chinese economy grew by only 6.4% in real terms in the October-December quarter of 2018, compared with a year earlier, marking the slowest quarterly pace of growth since January-March 2009, shortly after the so-called Lehman shock to the global financial system.
The deterioration of the Chinese economy was triggered by excessive debt and has been exacerbated by the Sino-U.S. economic and trade war and the two countries' struggle for technological supremacy.
Xi recently inspected the port of Tianjin, a major trade hub handling Chinese exports and imports, and stressed the importance of the real economy. However, cargo movements through Chinese ports are now sluggish due to a slump in both exports and imports.
If this continues for a long time, the living standards of ordinary Chinese people will be squeezed. This will put strong pressure on Xi, possibly leading to a change in the balance of power within his regime.