REUTERS – China is investigating former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang, one of the most powerful politicians of the last decade, on suspicion of corruption, the government said on Tuesday, in what could become China’s biggest graft scandal.
The ruling Communist Party is investigating Zhou for suspected “serious disciplinary violations”, the party’s graft watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, said in a brief statement, using the usual euphemism for corruption.
The decision was made in line with the party’s constitution and anti-corruption regulations, the statement added, without giving details.
Reuters reported in early December that Zhou had been placed under virtual house arrest after President Xi Jinping ordered a special task force to look into corruption accusations against him.
Reuters also reported in March that Chinese authorities had seized assets worth at least 90 billion yuan ($14.56 billion) from family members and associates of Zhou. More than 300 of Zhou’s relatives, political allies, proteges and staff had been taken into custody or questioned, sources who had been briefed on the investigation told Reuters.
Zhou, 71, is the most senior Chinese politician to be ensnared in a graft scandal since the Communist Party swept to power in 1949.
He was a member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee – China’s apex of power – and held the immensely powerful post of security tsar until he retired in 2012.
Xi has made fighting deeply engrained graft a central theme of his administration, and has promised to take down “tigers” – or senior officials – as well as those of lower rank who are implicated in corruption.
In ordering the investigation into Zhou, Xi has broken with an unwritten understanding that members of the Politburo Standing Committee would not be investigated after retirement.
Xi took over as head of the party in 2012 and became president in March last year.
The investigation shows he has consolidated power and has the confidence to manage any internal rift that may ensue, experts said.
“He has taken down many others, and now he has reached the point where he can take down such a major figure,” said historian and independent political commentator Zhang Lifan.
During his five-year tenure as security chief, Zhou oversaw the police force, civilian intelligence apparatus, paramilitary police, judges and prosecutors. Under his watch, government spending on domestic security exceeded the defence budget.
But Zhou became too powerful, sources with ties to the leadership have said, and that position was downgraded during a sweeping reshuffle in 2012.
Zhou was also implicated in rumours in 2012 that he hesitated in moving against one-time contender for top leadership Bo Xilai, who fell in a divisive scandal following accusations his wife murdered a British businessman. Bo’s wife was later convicted over the killing.
Zhou was last seen at an alumni celebration at the China University of Petroleum on Oct. 1. It is not clear if he has a lawyer.
The announcement of the investigation shows that Xi’s anti-corruption crackdown is gathering steam.
Last month, the party said it would court-martial one of its most senior former military officers, Xu Caihou, also on charges of corruption.
The party has already gone after several of Zhou’s proteges, including Jiang Jiemin, who was the top regulator of state-owned enterprises for just five months until last September when state media said he too was put under investigation for graft.
Jiang was previously chairman of state-owned China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) – Zhou’s power base – as well as one of its subsidiaries, oil-and-gas behemoth PetroChina . Zhou served as CNPC’s general manager from 1996-1998, having risen through the ranks.
Zhou joined the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007 while also heading the central Political and Legal Affairs Committee, a sprawling body that oversees law-and-order policy.
That double status allowed Zhou to dominate a domestic security budget of $110 billion a year, exceeding the defence budget, and earning the enmity of Chinese dissidents.
“Zhou has always been an enemy of the people,” said Hu Jia, one of China’s most prominent human rights activists.
“But Xi Jinping’s investigation of Zhou isn’t for human rights or to oppose corruption. This is a power struggle.”
The hulking, grim-faced Zhou stepped down along with most members of the Standing Committee at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012.
At the same time, the position he occupied was downgraded, and his successor Meng Jianzhu is only a member of the Politburo, the 25-member body which reports to the Politburo Standing Committee.
Since the 1990s, China’s efforts to stifle crime, unrest and dissent have allowed the domestic security apparatus – including police, armed militia and state security officers – to accumulate power, which worried many within the party.
After years in the oil industry and related ministries, Zhou went on to run the teeming and huge southwestern province of Sichuan, before being named as public security minister in 2002.
There, Zhou made waves early on, taking the unprecedented step of sacking hundreds of police to stamp out a drinking culture, but later endeared himself to the force by creating a more professional, more powerful body.
Still, his time in charge of domestic security saw a huge swelling in the number of “mass incidents” – China’s euphemism for public protests – fuelled by frustration at a yawning wealth gap and official corruption, despite the fact the Party cracked down hard on dissent.
Zhou’s reign was also married by violent anti-Chinese protests in the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. ($1 = 6.1800 Chinese Yuan)