The downfall of Zhou Yongkang, formerly the ninth most powerful man in China, illustrates vividly that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has failed to install an orderly, transparent and credible succession system after 65 years in power.
When it takes place, Zhou's trial, like that of disgraced Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, will mostly likely avoid mentioning the real reason for his ouster, which is his alleged collusion with Bo to unseat President Xi Jinping.
It is widely believed that Zhou was seeking to get Bo inducted into the elite Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) at the 18th National Party Congress in November 2012. The idea was that when Zhou retired, Bo would take over his portfolio as China's security czar.
At the same time, Bo would seek to topple Mr Xi by making use of classified data that Zhou had illegally gathered on Mr Xi's family wealth.
The alleged plot came to light when Wang Lijun, Bo's right- hand man and Chongqing security chief until the two men fell out, tried to seek political asylum at the United States consulate in Chengdu in February 2012.
Though the CCP denied there was such a plot - it arrested six people and shut down 16 websites for spreading news of the coup - the ensuing purge of Bo and Zhou and their ultimate downfall were accurately predicted by Boxun, a US-based news website, which was the first to leak the story of Wang's defection.
Boxun also linked Ling Jihua, former director of the CCP's Central Office, to the plot.
The past two years saw members of the Ling family running into trouble one by one as Zhou's network was dismantled, in much the same way as the peeling back of the layers of an onion.
In other words, the purge of the three men unfolded as Boxun had predicted two years ago, which lends credence to the plot theory.
The official indictment against Zhou suggested something unusual might indeed have taken place.
Like other ousted officials, Zhou was accused of abusing his power to help relatives, mistresses and friends make huge profits from operating businesses, resulting in serious losses of state- owned assets, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Dec 6.
It added that Zhou committed adultery with a number of women and traded his power for sex and money.
But over and above these accusations, Zhou was said to have "seriously violated the Party's political, organisational and confidentiality discipline" and to have "leaked the Party's and country's secrets".
Duowei, a US-based news website known to reflect official Chinese views, noted that during Mao Zedong's time, anyone who committed these three offences would be deemed "anti-party" or "counter-revolutionary" and would face the death sentence.
On Dec 10, the People's Daily ran a commentary headlined "What Zhou Yongkang did makes him no different from a traitor".
The commentary likened him to Gu Shunzhang, a senior party leader who defected to the Kuomintang government, the CCP's arch-enemy, in 1931. His move was a huge blow to the CCP, which executed 13 of his family members in retaliation.
In the late 1960s, then state President Liu Shaoqi and Mao's designated successor Lin Biao were condemned as "traitors" for trying to usurp power from Mao.
That Zhou has been similarly labelled now suggests that he committed something just as serious.
Why all this power struggle?
The crux of the problem is that the CCP has yet to install a power succession system that allows aspiring candidates to compete in a legitimate, rule-based and peaceful manner.
Under the CCP system, the outgoing leader picks his successor, but this method of power transfer has been a source of political instability.
There are too many examples in China's history after 1949: Lin Biao tried to overthrow Mao. Hua Guofeng, who succeeded Mao in 1976, was outmanoeuvred by Deng Xiaoping two years later.
Deng later sacked his own proteges Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang for their more liberal approach to the country's political problems.
He picked Jiang Zemin, who later swept aside potential rivals such as then mayor of Beijing Chen Xitong and military heads Yang Shangkun and Yang Baibing. Deng also designated Hu Jintao to succeed Jiang. Given his clout, no one dared challenge his arrangement.
Hence, between 1992 and 2012, China enjoyed roughly two decades of relative peace in terms of power succession.
There was trouble again when Jiang, much less influential than Deng, anointed Xi as Hu's successor. It led rival aspirants such as Bo, who gained Zhou's support, to try to oust Xi.
So until the CCP formalises its power succession system, political instability - and purges - will not vanish.
This article was first published on Dec 19, 2014.
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