China places former security chief Zhou Yongkang under investigation

Jamil Anderlini
Zhou Yongkang, China's former security chief.
Feng Li | Getty Images

The most senior official to face corruption charges in the history of modern China has been formally placed under investigation by the ruling Communist party, nearly eight months after he and his family members were detained.

In a one-line statement published by Chinese state media on Tuesday evening, the party's Central Committee announced it would investigate Zhou Yongkang, 71, the country's former security tsar, for suspected "serious violations of [party] discipline," a euphemism for corruption charges.

Between 2007 and 2012, Mr Zhou was one of China's nine most powerful men as a member of the party's Central Politburo Standing Committee, the pinnacle of power in the authoritarian state.

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Sometimes referred to as the "Dick Cheney of China", Mr Zhou was the most feared of China's top leaders because of his position as head of the internal security services, the police and the courts, and his connections in the state-owned energy sector.

The launch of a public, if carefully stage-managed, investigation into Mr Zhou will lend teeth to an anti-corruption campaign that has been the centerpiece of President Xi Jinping's administration since he took power in late 2012.

In a conscious citation of the former dictator Mao Zedong, Mr Xi has repeatedly said his campaign will take down corrupt "tigers" – senior party officials previously viewed as untouchable – as well as "flies" from the lower ranks of the bureaucracy.

How will China's anti-graft drive impact the economy?
How will China's anti-graft drive impact the economy?

As the most senior party official to be charged with corruption in the history of the People's Republic, Mr Zhou certainly counts as a tiger.

Perhaps coincidentally, the formal launch of an investigation into Mr Zhou came on International Tiger Day, which falls on July 29 and is supposed to promote tiger conservation.

Mr Xi's supporters say his willingness to take on someone as powerful as Mr Zhou is strong evidence of his sincerity and resolve in dealing with rampant corruption that pervades every level and corner of the ruling party.

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After more than three decades of rapid growth, wealth disparity in the nominally Communist country is now worse than many countries in Africa and Latin America.

The main beneficiaries of pervasive corruption and rent-seeking have been "princelings", the close relatives of party officials, and their hangers-on.

Most of the charges Mr Zhou is likely to face involve his close relatives, including his son Zhou Bin, according to people familiar with the case.

China's purge may destabilize politics: Chang
China's purge may destabilize politics: Chang

They will also involve an enormous patronage network that stretches from the security services to provincial governments in western China and from the country's state broadcaster to the oil industry.

Scores of officials with ties to Mr Zhou have already been detained, as have many of his close relatives.

Mr Zhou began his career in the state-owned oil industry and rose to power with the help of the so-called "petroleum gang", a group of senior officials who also emerged from the energy sector.

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Mr Xi's critics, including several senior and mid-ranking party officials who are unwilling to speak publicly for fear of reprisals, argue the anti-corruption campaign and the Zhou investigation are a convenient way for the president to neutralize political rivals.

Mr Zhou's demise is rooted in the downfall of Bo Xilai, the charismatic "princeling" and former politburo member who was sentenced to life in prison last year for corruption and for his role in covering up his wife's murder of a British businessman.

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People familiar with the two cases say Mr Zhou is suspected of plotting with Mr Bo before his arrest in early 2012 to block Mr Xi's ascension to leadership of the party later that year.

"There remains an intimate connection between fighting corruption and political struggle in China and if you are a good friend to Xi then you won't be incriminated," said Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Center for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a seasoned analyst of Chinese elite politics. "Having tackled such a big tiger Xi is now more powerful than ever because he can use this anti-corruption card to intimidate his real or potential enemies."