December 13, 2013
The milk of human kindness is not flowing through the corridors of power in Beijing or in Pyongyang.
In the capitals of China and North Korea ‘tis the season to be merry, but only over the bodies of purged enemies and rivals.
In Beijing the bodies are only figurative – so far – as China’s new President and Communist Party boss Xi Jinping has moved against the man identified as his main rival for power, the retired head of the country’s security apparatus, Zhou Yongkang.
Zhou, however, is only under house arrest while he is investigated for corruption and, by some accounts, murder and plotting to overthrow the government.
In Pyongyang, meanwhile, the new young “Dear Leader” Kim Jong -un is emerging as a modern day Caligula, the first-century Roman emperor who committed murders at whim.
After recent reports that Kim, 30, ordered the execution of an old girlfriend to please his new wife, state media in North Korea on Friday said Kim’s uncle and political mentor, Jang Song-thaek, has been executed for “attempting to overthrow the state.”
After a brief show trial, the tribunal described Jang as “despicable human scum who was worse than a dog who perpetrated cursed acts of treachery.” He was immediately taken out and executed, just like two of his chief aides last month, whose public executions were the first sign that a purge was at hand.
The Byzantine stories of court intrigue coming from Beijing and Pyongyang are striking in their similarities and differences.
Both Xi and Kim have ascended the thrones of their authoritarian regimes after largely hidden, but strenuously contested, thrusts for power.
In Xi’s case, he took the leadership of China’s Communist Party just over a year ago amid a very public campaign by the popular and charismatic party boss of the megalopolis of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, for a seat on the seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s hub of power.
Bo’s campaign was championed by the now disgraced Zhou Yongkang, himself a Standing Committee member before his retirement in November last year.
The allegations now are that Zhou and Bo’s plans went far beyond regular political lobbying and included a plot to overthrow the government.
The scheme, if there was one, began to unravel early last year when Bo’s wife was charged and convicted for murdering a British business partner, and Bo himself was tried and convicted of corruption and abuse of power.
For several months there have been stories coming from the inner circles of power in Beijing that Zhou was under investigation and, when Xi secured his positions as President and party head, the former security chief’s days were numbered.
Similarly, in Pyongyang Kim Jong-un has had to establish his right to rule by force after taking over the leadership from his father, Kim Jong-il, who died late in 2011.
Kim Jong-un is the third member of his family to lead the ostensibly-Marxist nation since it was established by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, after the Second World War.
There are many among the North Korean military and ruling Workers’ Party of Korea who find the concept of a Marxist monarchy illogical and even abhorrent. Each new Kim has therefore had to establish a reputation for psychopathic brutality in order to cow opposition.
Kim Jong-il did it by arranging a bomb attack in Burma, which killed 17 visiting members of the cabinet of South Korea, and a 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner, which killed all 115 people on board.
Kim Jong-un’s apprenticeship in murder is said to have included the sinking of a South Korean warship and the artillery bombardment of a South Korean island, both in 2010.
But Kim Jong-un was still a callow youth as his father grew increasingly frail. It became evident in 2010 and 2011 that even as Kim Jong-un was made heir apparent, he was also being put under the guardianship of Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law, the wily and politically devious Jang Song-thaek.
In the early months of Kim Jong-un’s reign the partnership seemed to work well. The new regime established its individuality by reversing the “military first” policies of Kim Jong-il.
In Kim Jong-un’s first 22 months at the helm the generals holding the position of head of the General Staff was changed four times. And of the four top generals who accompanied Kim Jong-il’s hearse, none is now on active duty, and only one is known to have retired not in disgrace.
Now, however, Kim Jong-un has struck out and killed his mentor. Jang had many enemies, especially among hardliners, who regarded him as a moderate reformer.
Kim Jong-un may have moved against Jang to show he is fully in charge, or perhaps to placate the hardline, militarist faction. If so, North Korea is likely to return to its isolationist and belligerent stance that has threatened security in the Far East for several decades.
In China, meanwhile, Xi also is a “princeling,” the son of a revolutionary hero. But Xi is a much more accomplished politician than his North Korean counterpart.
Xi has worked his way up through the Communist Party hierarchy and establishing a reputation for competence by taking a lot of thankless, tough jobs in the provinces.
However, by moving against Zhou, Xi is breaking two cardinal rules that have guided the Communist Party for over 30 years.
Both stem from the decades of murderous rule by Mao Zedong. When the beast finally died in 1976, the Communist Party vowed it would never allow itself to be taken over by a maniac again.
So there evolved a system of collective leadership, which has produced a series of grey and uninspiring, but deeply corrupt leaders whose main focus has been feathering their own nests.
Xi, however, seems intent on establishing personal power.
Observers have been struck by the results of the Third Plenum of the 18th Communist Party Central Committee. It produced outlines for renewed economic reform, but this is subservient to national security and the continued primacy of the Communist Party. Xi chairs all the key managerial committees.
If Xi’s move against Zhou is a demonstration of personal hubris, it also breaks a second rule established after the death of Mao.
That is that former members of the Politburo Standing Committee were to be left to enjoy peaceful, fear-free retirements. There were to be no acts of revenge for historic grievances.
Xi’s grab at Zhou will undoubtedly spread fear and despondency among senior party officials, but it will also arouse opposition that will be invisible at first, but which will surface inevitably.
Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2013
Previous columns on China and North Korea:
China set to gain from airspace dispute. November 29, 2013
Crystal meth epidemic undermines North Korean regime. October 16, 2013
Anti-China sentiments boil in Hong Kong. October 11, 2013
China’s Xi renews threat to invade Taiwan. October 9, 2013
Political reform in China unavoidable. October 3, 2013
China’s leader moves to purge rivals. September 3, 2013
China prepares show trial of disgraced political superstar Bo Xilai. August 14, 2013