Older villagers knew the eel fisherman's boy who would become one of China's most fearsome men. Until recently, his two younger brothers were their neighbors. "All three brothers were good people," said a 69-year-old woman who lived next door. "They would not do bad things."
Many residents were stunned when corruption investigators raided the brothers' homes here in the Yangtze River delta in December, just days after leaders in Beijing secretly detained their older brother, Zhou Yongkang, the former Communist Party security chief.
"Once he was a great man, but now he is a condemned man," muttered the neighbor, who gave only her surname, Ms. Wang.
There is little sympathy for Mr. Zhou elsewhere in China, where some online dispatches on his case make coded reference to "House of Cards," the dark American political drama available online here. Public awareness is growing that his downfall may be near.
Party authorities have not announced any investigation involving Mr. Zhou. But people briefed on the case say he and at least seven relatives have been in custody for months. Several of China's more intrepid publications have run reports that they say map the way his relatives made a fortune, primarily in the oil industry and in Sichuan, the western province Mr. Zhou once ran, but also by selling high-end cars and liquor in this area. A New York Times investigation found assets in their names worth at least one billion i, or about $160 million.
The coverage has brought notoriety to their ancestral village, Xiqiantou, a 500-year-old preserve flanked by new roadways and industrial parks on the outskirts of the city of Wuxi. Xiqiantou's official web page declares proudly that from here "sprung forth state leader Zhou Yongkang." But domestic news reports have depicted the village as pampered and the family as debauched as he ascended.
The bad publicity did not sit well with many villagers interviewed last month, particularly after the lone brother to spend his whole life here, Zhou Yuanxing, died of bone cancer in February. Most residents had rather vague notions of the family's affairs, yet many were quick to dispute the news reports as distorted.
"Anyone who is bad-mouthing the family is just stepping on people now that they're down," said one man in his 80s who shares the surname Zhou but is not related. He and others refused to give their full names, citing fears of retaliation.
It is highly unusual to find the family of any Chinese leader so unshielded from public scrutiny, let alone one who once presided over the police and intelligence agencies. But current leaders have appeared remarkably tolerant of the journalists and curiosity seekers who stalk Mr. Zhou's family as investigators build their case against him.
In Xiqiantou, officials and businesspeople were among the carloads of gawkers snapping photos of the Zhou houses and graves. Many villagers voiced exasperation over the commotion.
It was a steep comedown for a family that, locals acknowledged, once received frequent house calls from pandering local politicians. So many came annually on Tomb Sweeping Day, when Chinese visit their ancestors' graves, that the local government added a small parking lot in 2009, the investigative news outlet Caixin reported.
The township helped plant camphor trees and enlarge the Zhou grave site in the 1990s, Caixin said, after a face-reading monk advised Mr. Zhou — known for his tough-guy sneer — that sprucing up the site would improve his career prospects.
Residents could not verify such details, and local government offices declined to respond to questions. But many villagers insisted that the Zhou houses and graves, though among the biggest and best-adorned here, were nothing special.
Mr. Zhou himself, now 71, grew up under a different name, Zhou Yuangen, and left when he was a teenager. Villagers said his name was changed because he shared it with a classmate. (Chinese news outlets, barred from naming him outright, have employed "Yuangen" instead.)
Even contemporaries could muster only a brief biography. His family was among the poorest farmers, villagers said, but his father moonlighted as a fisherman to put the sons through school, at risk of being caught "illegally trading" under the strictures of Maoist communes.
Mr. Zhou was a self-made man with humble roots, villagers stressed, unlike the "princeling" children of revolutionary leaders, who include President Xi Jinping. "Zhou Yongkang was very honest," said a man surnamed Shen, 69, whose brother attended school with Mr. Zhou. "He wasn't a double-dealer."
During the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Zhou returned to Xiqiantou from northern China, where he began his career as an oil technician, Mr. Shen said. "He would roll up his pants and go into the fields like everyone else."
Residents of Xiqiantou did not see much in recent decades of his youngest brother, Zhou Yuanqing, and Yuanqing's wife, Zhou Lingying, retired civil servants who later built Audi dealerships and natural gas projects in the area. Both are among those detained. Last year, Ms. Zhou promised to supply villagers with metered gas. "Now it looks like it's not going to happen," said one childhood friend, surnamed Wen.
The family reputation was staked instead on Zhou Yuanxing, the brother who stayed behind. He was under surveillance by plainclothes police officers from December until he died, neighbors said. His lifestyle was also a matter of some dispute.
Acquaintances said Zhou Yuanxing, a former farmer, was widely liked and lived somewhat like a commoner, riding an old bicycle and playing low-stakes mah-jongg. But in the past decade, he and his son began distributing Wuliangye, a deluxe brand of liquor from Sichuan, after Mr. Zhou ran the province. "The business was good because Wuliangye is not something just anyone can sell," said Mr. Shen's wife, Wang Jiying.
According to Caixin, Zhou Yuanxing also began peddling his government connections for "public relations" fees — up to $65,000 per favor, he claimed — helping associates to line up jobs and lawsuits and officials to wiggle out of criminal trouble.
More from the New York Times:
But some neighbors offered a kinder assessment. "He didn't really do anything, but so many people came to pat his behind," Mr. Shen said. "When people know that you have this kind of power, and they ask you to do things, how can you say no?"
Residents bristled most vocally at reports that portrayed their village as a Zhou family protectorate. Local planners took pains to spare Xiqiantou from widespread redevelopment, Caixin reported, while 29 homes nearby were razed for a road extension leading by the Zhous' houses, which was nicknamed Yuangen Avenue. Numerous villagers denied that it was built for the family.
Some asserted that Zhou Yongkang was just another scapegoat in a system rife with corruption and rivalries.
"In political struggles, someone has to be sacrificed," said a woman surnamed Pu. "If Xi didn't make it to the top and Zhou did, it would be Xi's family suffering now instead."
Zhou Yongkang's last known visit was in April last year. He did not stay long, visiting the family houses and graves, recalled Ms. Wang, the neighbor. Villagers were not sure if he uttered a line recently attributed to him in the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post: "This could be the last time I come to visit everyone."