BEIJING -- Chinese President Xi Jinping is using his crackdown on corruption to neutralize powerful Communist Party figures and cement his own power, cleverly tapping into strong public dissatisfaction over graft.
Confident of public support, Xi moved Dec. 5 to have Zhou Yongkang, a powerful member of the oil clique, arrested on suspicion of crimes including corruption and abuse of power. This marked the first time since the 1949 establishment of the People's Republic of China that a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest decision-making body, had been arrested over corruption.
In January 2013, two months after becoming general secretary, Xi declared that he would fight corruption. He vowed to expose it at all levels of the Chinese bureaucracy -- and the expression he used, "strike both tigers and flies," became a popular phrase.
He has since gone after targets ranging from such heavyweights as Zhou to regional officials. At least 800 officials at the vice-department-head level or higher in the central government, or vice mayor or higher in regional governments, have lost their jobs, according to the party's disciplinary inspection commission.
Some in the party argue that this is highhanded politics masquerading as an anti-corruption campaign. In any case, Xi has elevated himself into the unchallenged leader.
Other fallen big names are Ling Jihua, former head of the United Front Work Department and a former top aide to ex-President Hu Jintao; Bo Xilai, former party chief of Chongqing; and Xu Caihou, former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. Xi's strategy of lumping them and Zhou together as the "New Gang of Four" and taking them down has resonated with the public.
What makes Xi's campaign impressive is that it targets not only individuals, but also their backing.
When he went after Zhou, Xi stripped away the oil clique's energy interests and also targeted the public security apparatus, which Zhou had headed, and officials from Sichuan Province. Taking down Xu gave him the pretext to reform the military. And the questioning of Ling, which is expected to intensify, will let Xi weaken the Shanxi Province clique and the coal interests it controls.
The campaign has widened its target from industrial cliques to regional governments to the military. In particular, the Dec. 22 downfall of Ling sent shock waves through the party. Ling had risen out of the Communist Youth League, whose alumni, including Hu and Premier Li Keqiang, form a powerful group within the party.
A party official said the Ling probe does not mean that the Youth League itself has been targeted. But an official connected to the Youth League points out that few princelings -- children of prominent party elders -- have been caught up in the crackdown. Xi, himself a princeling, clearly seeks to keep the powerful Youth League alumni in check.
Xi has his sights set on the next party congress, in 2017, where five of the Standing Committee's seven members are expected to be replaced. His eventual successor, who would take the helm in 2022, will likely be among the new members of the committee.
The Ling investigation and the fact that many candidates for promotion to the Standing Committee hail from the Youth League are certainly linked. Earlier, Xi appeared to be using his anti-corruption campaign to strengthen his relatively weak power base. But as 2017 draws nearer, the crackdown looks more like part of a power struggle over the naming of the nation's next leader.