China’s elites in turmoil: 60 officials died of unnatural causes in a year

Many years ago, journalist-writer and China-hand Theodore White was interviewed on TV. He memorably described power struggles in the Chinese Communist Party as akin to the battle of sea monsters beneath the waves. All we outsiders see are the churning water and foam, and an occasional brief glimpse of the monsters’ heads as they emerge from the sea for a gulp of air.

Those sea monsters are at war again. There’s trouble among China’s top leadership.

Writing for The Weekly Standard, May 9, 2014, Abram N. Shulsky and Gary Schmitt claim that about 60 of the country’s officials had died of unnatural causes in the span of a year.

Shulsky is a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute; Schmitt is director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The two are coauthors of Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence.

Below is their article, “Trouble at the Top: Chinese officialdom is in turmoil“.

President of the People's Republic China, Xi Jinping

President of the People’s Republic China, Xi Jinping

In little over a year, close to 60 Chinese officials have died of unnatural causes, with most being suicides. The strong suspicion is that this epidemic of mysterious deaths among China’s elite is likely tied to the anticorruption campaign being led by Chinese president and party general secretary Xi Jinping.

Certainly Xi Jinping’s anticorruption drive has reached higher in the bureaucracy than any such effort in decades. Coming on the heels of the prosecution of the high-flying Bo Xilai, a former Central Politburo member and potential rival of Xi, it raises the possibility of elite instability on a level not seen since the Cultural Revolution. Not surprisingly, Chinese newspapers have been told in a secret order from Beijing to stop reporting on suicides by top government and party officials.

Bo XilaiIn a sensational case involving murder, sex, and corruption, former high-flying Chinese princeling Bo Xilai was sentenced to life in prison on Sept. 22, 2013.

Understanding what all this means is one of the U.S. government’s most important strategic intelligence tasks. While China is not, in intelligence terms, a “closed society” along the lines of the former Soviet Union or present-day North Korea, it remains a challenge to get inside the heads, as it were, of China’s elite to understand how they view the challenges they face, how decisions are made, and why.

Needless to say, it has proven difficult to recruit highly placed sources within a country with a pervasive domestic security apparatus like China’s. Effective internal security programs make it difficult, first, to recruit someone and, second, to keep that individual reporting for any length of time without being discovered.

Hence, in the past, when facing such hard targets, a primary source of information—indeed, perhaps the principal source of information at times—was the timely defection. An official who for one reason or another decides to abandon his country and who has had access through his employment or connections to valuable information can reasonably hope to be welcomed in countries that want the information. Although not as valuable as “agents-in-place,” defectors have been crucial sources of intelligence about governments where information is scant.

Given our need for insight into the thinking of the Chinese elite, one would think that this might be an extremely propitious time for this type of informant. Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign last year led to the punishment of more than 180,000 party officials for abuse of power and corruption, according to the Chinese Communist party’s own numbers. And while most were minor functionaries, the net has broadened to include senior officers in the party, the military, and the security services.

Zhou Yongkang & Xi Jinping

Zhou Yongkang (l) and Xi Jinping

The most prominent target, Zhou Yongkang, was a former Politburo Standing Committee member, head of the country’s oil company, and director of China’s domestic security agency. Zhou’s reported links with the disgraced Bo Xilai suggest that the apparent rivalry between Xi and Bo is not unconnected with Zhou’s current troubles. One can speculate that Zhou’s circle of bureaucratic allies and clients, as well as members of his family, must be feeling the heat.

As the noose tightens, U.S. intelligence ought to make clear to those Chinese within the government elite that there are safe havens in the West—as long as they are willing to cooperate.

Thanks to China’s economic boom, and the very corruption that Xi now sees as threatening the future of Communist rule in China, many members of the elite have managed to smuggle a massive amount of wealth out of the country. Members of the elite have sent their children to college in the West, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom, and are purchasing real estate in Manhattan, London, and elsewhere in increasingly large numbers.

This is clearly an elite worried about its future. U.S. intelligence is in a position to facilitate defectors’ enjoyment of their wealth in relative security. Or, should Langley want to play hardball, it could well be in a position, in certain cases, to increase the danger of those who might want to stay in China by threatening to reveal embarrassing bits of information publicly, such as how much lucre they have stashed away, and where they have hidden it.

One would prefer, of course, to welcome only defectors with high-minded motives, such as a desire to promote the democratization of their homeland. Most, however, will leave for less noble reasons, such as avoiding imprisonment. Some will be motivated by simple greed. It’s the intelligence community’s job to hold its nose, encourage defections, and, in turn, provide policymakers with information and insights about a Chinese ruling elite whose thinking and workings remain far too closed for American security and comfort.

While Russia’s aggressive posture toward Ukraine currently tops our national security agenda, it’s a good bet that, over the longer term, China will remain the foreign country with which the United States will be most concerned. Let’s hope U.S. intelligence is taking advantage of the internal turmoil among the Chinese elite.

H/t CODA’s Sol Sanders



8 responses to “China’s elites in turmoil: 60 officials died of unnatural causes in a year

  1. How strange. When people dedicated to the “welfare of the workers” get into power, they start acting just like the robber barons, degenerate aristocracy and warlords they fought to replace.


  2. anchorageknight

    This article is written without a complete grasp of how PRC functions. Corruption is structural, and (almost) universal for that reason. [I do know of a unique policeman, on a personal crusade against kidnapping and sales of young women. He must have some independent means of supporting his family: a normal policeman can’t afford to not take bribes to make ends meet. That is more or less the SOP: people don’t want or get jobs in the bureaucracy because of the pay: they get them because of what holding that position will yield in other ways.] Unless and until PRC elects to pay its officials a truly living wage, it will remain as it is. Until PRC has a modern tax structure and can afford to pay its officials properly, it will remain as it is.

    In this context, a so-called ‘anti-corruption campaign’ is not about corruption at all. It is about power. About who supports whom? As long as you support the right guy, you can be corrupt – and this is endemic and understood by all, high and low. At the same time, a nominally ideological communist has not the slightest problem with this. Lenin explains that a dedicated communist should be willing to do whatever is ordered by higher. Get a phone call that says “shoot yourself immediately” – do so and do not ask why? Granted that there are few ideological communists in PRC today, it remains theoretically the case that all Party members are supposed to be such. In fact, party members are mainly ordinary professionals trying to get ahead, mixed with a few actual power mongers who hope to rise far and are willing to do anything to get there, along with a few thugs who would serve any regime. [In Eastern Europe, former Nazi thugs were hired by communist party controlled secret police organizations: for both the thugs and those who run them ideology – or who you used to work for – is not an issue. Someone who will do what he is told is an asset.]


  3. Western Governments want to get in the heads of Russian and Chinese leadership as if we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. All the lines are blurred and the Nazi/Islamicfication of US/EU policy is far more evil than anything are supposed enemies are up to. Jinping and Putin are far better men than Obama and Cameron who have totally sold out to Saudi interests than are the biggest threat to global security.


  4. I wonder how many of those who “committed suicide” somehow had to reload while doing it…


  5. Thank you StMA for this important post. I am stunned that so many of China’s elite have committed suicide. Frankly, I find it noteworthy that the number is so high and I question whether or not it is really suicide.


  6. Mongan Methul

    China has a bone to pick with the world(edp, the West). The ‘middle kingdom’ wants to really assert itself to it’s supposedly rightful position of, ‘ Master of the Universe’… I say we hound them into a fight, fight them while we still can win. China has a huge population, if they ever achieve military power might comparable to the US, there will be hell to pay…it will be a war of attrition which we will never win. Let’s knock China back to the backwaters where they belong. If China were cool like India, we would have no worries, but this Hans are crazy!!!!


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