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Once a rising star in law enforcement and widely regarded ally of Xi Jinping, he was the man in charge of a special investigation that brought down the most powerful official in the Chinese President’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign.
Fu Zhenghua, China’s former justice minister and deputy police chief, seemed to have all the stars aligned for a high-flying official career. But instead, the 66-year-old has now become a target himself in Xi’s relentless crackdown on graft and disloyalty, which critics say has also been used to purge political rivals.
On Saturday, the ruling Communist Party’s anti-corruption watchdog announced Fu is under investigation for “serious violations of party discipline and law.”
The one-sentence statement did not offer any details, yet intriguingly sparked an outpouring of cheers and applause online – from rank-and-file police officers and prison guards to investigative journalists, human rights lawyers and intellectuals.
In Xi’s China, the purges of political rising stars and powerful officials have become a common occurrence. But what’s remarkable about Fu’s downfall is how widely it is being celebrated – both by people working for the regime, and by those who have been subject to its repression.
Fu cut his teeth as a criminal investigator for the Beijing police. He first made his name in 2010 – just months after being named the city’s police chief – when he launched a prostitution crackdown on several high-end nightclubs said to have influential political connections.
His willingness to challenge the business interests of powerful families won him praise in state media and the trust of the leadership. In 2013, Xi appointed him to spearhead a graft probe into Zhou Yongkang, China’s former security tzar and retired member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the pinnacle of power in the party. Zhou was jailed for life in 2015 for corruption and abuse of power.
But Fu was not just taking on corrupt political elites. As the deputy minister of public security, in 2013 he unleashed a sweeping crackdown on opinion leaders on Chinese social media site Weibo, detaining several high-profile commentators with large followings. He was also in charge of the nationwide roundup of human rights lawyers and activists in 2015, in what has become infamously known as the “709 crackdown,” according to people close to the detained lawyers.
Following news of his downfall, several veteran investigative journalists said on social media they had been targeted by Fu for their hard-hitting reports, on topics ranging from illegal detention of petitioners to local government corruption.
Yu Jianrong, a prominent Chinese sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank, accused Fu of trying to silence him in 2010 for speaking out against Beijing’s alleged persecution of petitioners.
“The targets of Fu Zhenghua’s crackdown are people at the core of China’s civil society. Therefore, the country’s whole intellectual sector and the wider public are all thrilled by (his fall from grace),” said Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing.
“His rise to power represented the aggressive iron-fist approach that has shaped China’s governance over the past decade.”
Fu’s heavy-handed approach was also applied to police officers and prison guards, some of whom applauded their former boss’ downfall as “most gratifying.” Commenting on social media, many accused Fu of imposing grueling and unreasonably harsh requirements on grassroots officers, such as not allowing prison guards to take breaks during night shifts.
“After the downfall of a senior official in the judicial system, the vast grassroots police officers and lawyers all had the same reaction and united in celebration – it is not an easy thing to achieve for an official,” a columnist said on Weibo.
Fu is the latest senior official to be ensnared in Xi’s massive purge of China’s domestic security agencies, which was launched last year. It comes ahead of a major party leadership reshuffle next fall, when Xi is expected to hold on to power for a third term – becoming the first Chinese leader to do so in more than two decades, after he abolished presidential term limits in 2018.
Officials in China’s domestic security apparatus were urged to “turn the blade inwards and scrape the poison off the bone,” and to expose “two-faced people” who are disloyal and dishonest to the party.
The announcement of the investigation into Fu comes just days after Sun Lijun, another former vice minister of public security, was expelled from the party and accused of corruption and “harboring hugely inflated political ambitions.” A third deputy police chief and former head of the international policing agency Interpol was sentenced last year to 13 and a half years in prison for corruption.
Wu, the analyst, said the series of purges betray the fragility of trust from the Chinese leadership in the country’s domestic security agencies.
“It is very difficult for Beijing to have political trust. This is the biggest crisis in its governance,” he said.