There's been much to-do about China's anti-corruption drive, and the leading example of that effort has been the downfall of a man who was once one of the country's most powerful officials, ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang.
But the Chinese government's unprecedented decision to investigate Zhou, which potentially paves the way for formal corruption charges, may not be quite the triumph many observers assumed. Perhaps the clearest signal comes from a recent assessment by the man at the helm of the corruption crackdown: Chinese President and Communist Party boss Xi Jinping.
"The two armies of corruption and anti-corruption are at a stalemate," Xi reportedly told a closed-door Politburo meeting in late June.
"In my struggle against corruption, I don't care about life or death, or ruining my reputation," a state-run newspaper in northeast China quotes him as saying, in remarks that have been described as "shocking."
Several state media outlets republished the report, which censors deleted later.
It's a glimpse into the party's inner chambers, and of the strength of internal opposition Xi is likely facing. It's also a sign of a potential backlash against the wider anti-corruption campaign, which is popular with ordinary Chinese fed up with endemic graft.
Until his retirement two years ago, Zhou commanded a vast security apparatus whose budget eclipsed even the military's. Now, he is accused of violating unspecified party rules. Criminal corruption charges could follow.
Observers see Xi as eager to make the anti-graft drive one of his signature policies, and to go at it with a blitzkrieg-like intensity. State media report that officials are being investigated at the rate of 50 a month, including, since February, two officials per month at or above the level of Cabinet minister.
State media have commented that China's leaders are determined to break tacit rules that politicians at the highest level are immune from prosecution, a tradition that has centuries-old roots in Chinese political culture.
But the many remaining corrupt officials — both high-ranking, powerful "tigers" and lower-level "flies" — are unlikely to sit around and wait to be picked off one by one, anti-corruption expert Guo Wenliang told the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper.
So "the risk of a joint counterattack by the tigers is very, very great," said Guo, who teaches at Zhongshan University in the southern city of Guangzhou.
Among the tactics the "tigers" might use, he said, is turning the tables on leaders in charge of the anti-corruption drive — by gathering evidence of their corruption.
There's no evidence of a counterattack so far. But the fact that it took so long for the government to announce the investigation into Zhou Yongkang suggests to many observers that it ran into stiff resistance.
Every year, China sees thousands of cases of grass-roots unrest, often triggered by official corruption in the provinces. But the threat of a political counteroffensive by corrupt officials recalls the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's famously dire prediction: "If China runs into trouble, it will come from inside the Communist Party."
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